Some Advice to Enquirers

by Fr. John Chagnon, Saint Petroc Magazine, Vol. III, No. 2, July 2000.
A point that I think enquirers need to keep in mind is that Western Rite people often get challenged regarding their Orthodoxy, simply because they are Western Rite. We often answer such criticism with an appeal to the authority of our bishops because within Orthodoxy the level of respect for the opinions of hierarchs is significant.


Outside of Orthodoxy that kind of appeal may seem peculiar (especially in Protestant circles where in some cases every person acs as "bishop" to themselves). So when we say that any practice is approved by our hierarchs we presume, outside of heresy, that the issue is settled because we live in obedience to those who are our "fathers" in Christ even as they will be called to give an account for the souls placed under their care. This is the order of the life of faith given by Christ to the Apostles - that it is strange and challenging to many of us (even lifelong Christians) shows how far we have travelled away from our "home".


Orthodoxy is a different way of perceiving the world. Western concepts of logic and order, shaped as they are by the overarching "enlightenment" rationality don't always work in dealing with the various phenomena of Orthodox Christianity. Linear progression (point A always goes to point B) and isolation of individual events from the greater whole, the description of history separately from the Faith, makes little sense in Orthodoxy which has no understanding at all of history, science, nature, culture, time, or the universe apart from the presence of God. In fact I would posit that part of what marks Orthodoxy out as the original form of Christian faith is that it has continued living within this world view.

Orthodoxy is a faith that is not as preoccupied with precision in details as most Roman and Protestant Christians have been. We have academics but we don't worship academia. We have theologians but they should be before all, persons of prayer - to Orthodoxy, a theologian is someone with long personal experience of God and not necessarily an academic at all.

We are content with Mystery and prefer to live in it rather than spend long hours attempting to explain it all (because that doesn't work.)

Many enquirers find this frustrating especially if they come from communities of faith where fervent and passionate debate about individual texts in Scripture is practiced. Orthodoxy may appear to be "lax" to them or unconcerned about the "truth". It is not. Orthodoxy simply feels no compulsion (for example) to reinvent the Faith in each era, because all the major issues of the Faith were settled in the creeds of the Fathers. We tend to trust as our guides not people who simply "think" about or "study" the faith, but rather those who have lived it as well (this is why we place such a high value on saints, martyrs, confessors and monastics). A person could memorize the entire body of the Church's Canon Law (and believe me, it is not a single, monolithic entity) and still be less Orthodox than the faithful grandmothers who came to church in the face of Soviet oppression.

This is what makes Orthodoxy unique and challenges our assumptions about our prior lives of faith. Orthodoxy is at its heart, not an institution or a system of theology but a way of existing. To become Orthodox is by no means simply to switch denominations - but rather to be Orthodox is to see all of life in the perspective of the Kingdom of God. Our secular way of life is profoundly challenged by this and to the extent that our communities of faith have consciously or unconsciously adopted this western/secular mindset Orthodoxy will seem peculiar in its methods even "un-Christian".

I think that part of the exasperation that is sometimes expressed by outsiders and enquirers comes from a clash of visions. Point by point specificity on all things is simply not a priority in Orthodoxy and when someone requests this, the Orthodox response is not in point by point debate but rather in the language of community, history, and relationship with the Church and our hierarchs. In some ways I think we talk over each other, and this presents a challenge for us Orthodox to develop methods of presenting who and what we are in ways that those without our frame of reference can understand.

There could be more to say but what is probably needed is a process of building bridges between those seeking out Orthodoxy and those who are in the lifelong process of apprehending it. Those who ask questions should as best they can, ask for clarification so that those who answer can focus on making what may be alien concepts as understandable as possible.

Questioners may not get a simple answer but they should listen even if the answer is not always in the form that they wished for, because they can learn about Orthodoxy not just from the answers but the "form" the answers take as well. Those who answer questions should not assume that the person asking is familiar with an Orthodox worldview and seek as best they can to step into the frame of reference of the questioner to help them obtain the information they seek in terms they can understand.