Thursday, May 5, 2016

What I learn from Orthodox Christians

Over the last year, starting with a young woman I worked with who was dating a Serbian Orthodox fellow, I have come to know several Orthodox Christians.  One is a sub-deacon, a certain variation on the office of the diaconate that appears common in the Orthodox tradition.  One is an Orthodox priest, though a convert from the Episcopal Church.

There are many things I've picked up on, and they are quite new to me.  I won't list them all.  But it is definitely a world view with which I am unfamiliar.  When I became Catholic, I thought it was a radical shift, a major departure from everything I understood.  In the end, I was wrong.  Yes, there are certainly differences with Catholicism, especially as I came from an evangelical, non-sacramental background without a set liturgy (at least in theory).  So there was some getting used to things as a Catholic.  But in many ways, theologically and culturally, I was shocked at how similar Catholicism is to my Protestant, American roots.

I have no doubt that if I move to a Catholic church in Africa or Latin America it would be different.  But only culturally.  It would be different if I moved to a Protestant church in Africa or Latin America just the same.  Something I know well from all the missionaries I worked with in my ministry days.

And yet, even though these Orthodox believers work with me, live in the same neighborhood, and some grew up in a similar culture, they seem to have views and practices that are altogether foreign.  For instance, as a Protestant to Catholic, I simply took Orthodoxy to be that other side of the Catholic coin.  We have Protestants over there, and over here in the 'real' circles are the Catholics and their good buddies the Orthodox.

Not so, from the Orthodox point of view.  Turns out they see Catholicism and Protestantism as two sides of the same basic coin.  In fact, they view the Reformation as the logical consequences of the development of Catholic doctrine that occurred over the preceding centuries that lead up to the Reformation.  And they are able to provide instances where Catholics and Protestants essentially see things the same way, as opposed to how the Orthodox see them, such as how our eternal destinies work out and just what it means by Christ's sacrifice on the cross as a payment for our sins.

But those ware weighty theological issues and I'm sure I'm not schooled enough in Orthodox doctrine to present the contrasts without messing up something.  So it's to another topic I've learned to which I turn my attention.  Many of the Orthodox I've met are from other countries we're often not used to hearing about: Romania, Syria, Palestine, Greece, Sweden(?).  Yep, those Orthodox Swedes.  As a result, I've learned about some things that I hear on the news from viewpoints that are radically other than what we get in much of our bantering back and forth about the wars, the crisis, the terrorism, and about Islam.

One thing I was told is that, for many Orthodox coming from Muslim lands, Palm Sunday is the big attendance and celebration day, not Easter.  Why?  Because in some Muslim lands, Islamic society puts certain pressures on Christians.  Nothing horrible.  Just a reminder that Christians don't have stars on their bellies and Muslims do.  For instance, putting forth regulations or ordinances that hinder Christians on certain key Holy Days, like Easter.  So to get around that, over the generations, Christians have adapted by moving the 'real' celebrations to nearby days, like Palm Sunday, that fly under the Muslim radar.

Another thing I've learned is that Muslims are, in fact, and have been for many years, attacking, even violently, Christians and churches in areas that the news never mentions.  I had no idea that there was an Orthodox Church in Indonesia.  Apparently it is struggling because of, among other things, the repeated attacks and pressure put on them by the Muslim government.  Christians are such a minority that, in the fourth largest population on the planet, there aren't that many 'major' instances of mass killings or destruction.  So over here, we don't hear about it. But over there, the percentage of Christians being oppressed and persecuted is a rather high percentage of the overall Christian population in Indonesia.

The same goes for their thoughts on Islam altogether.  Believe it or not, there is a middle ground between the Right and Left versions we hear in our country.  They basically see Muslims as their friends and neighbors.  But they also admit that, in the end, the Muslims will band against non-believers over siding with them.  Maybe not in cases of terrorist attacks, where Muslims are as unhappy about dying as Christians, and will therefore side with Christians against the terrorists.  But with the overall course of day to day living, in the end, Muslims want the world to be Muslim, and in the end, are willing to do what it takes to make it happen. Which is why one Orthodox believer I met from Syria said that, even though most Muslims are obviously not terrorists, they are willing to default to that brand of Islamic extremism, because at least that seems to be in keeping with the need to spread Islam around the world.  That is especially true for the less educated Muslims.

Nothing earth-shattering.  It shouldn't even be news, just common sense.  Especially for anyone who studied pre-Multi-Cultural history.  After all, just as the European kingdoms were settling the new world, a good half century after Plymouth colony was founded, those pesky Ottoman Muslims were still trying to break through Vienna in order to sweep across the European countryside. Something of which the kingdoms settling the New World, and many migrating to the newly discovered lands, would have been keenly aware.  That 17th century attempt to conquer Europe was the last in an almost 1100 year long series of attempts by the Islamic world to crash into, and overtake Christendom.

I'm often amazed at how few people know that with the exception of about 300 years, most of the history of Islam produced some forces somewhere that were dedicated to taking over the Christian world, or that effectively did so in the form of the Byzantine Empire.  Most seem to hold the view of PBS that, except for some freakish exceptions who only hate us because we made them hate us due to the US and the Crusades, the Islamic world was just one long, harmonious chorus of John Lennon songs and flowers in the hair.

Again, nothing I haven't known for years because of the good fortune of studying history before the dark years of Multi-culturalism.  But hearing it from actual Christians who are from those areas, who come from a radically different take on our Faith, and are not hostile toward their Muslim neighbors, only drives home how ill-informed we are of what is happening in the world; in all likelihood because of our own willful ignorance.


  1. Eastern Christianity has a very Greek outlook whether they are Orthodox or Eastern Catholic. I had a history professor who said the the difference between the Greeks and Roman was that, coming upon a valley with a river running through it, a Greek would write a treatise on how nice it would be to have a bridge across the river. A Roman coming across the same scene would just build a bridge. Eastern Christians have always been interested in the "what" of the faith and the Latin west in the "how".

  2. That's seems to be close to the point. The sub-deacon I've met actually says that the Orthodox are content with "God? Yep.", while the Roman view has been to unpack, question, develop extensive arguments and legalistic treatises on His existence. I notice that the Orthodox seem to draw a thick line between their approach and the post-Scholastic approach of the West.

  3. The Protestant Reformation is the result of Catholic development?

    The Orthodox in general are arrogant and snobby.

    One wonders why Islam & Communism nearly wiped out Orthodoxy. Divine retribution for their superiority complex?

  4. Tito, even Protestants, and some Catholics, admit that the Reformation was a Catholic phenomenon. After all, it's hard to let the Church off the hook completely when it held a monopoly on the spiritual and ecclesiastical heart and soul of the civilization out of which the Reformation emerged. History is a complex study, and it's likely that the truth is somewhere between 'it's the Church's fault' and 'the Church had nothing to do with it.' It's certainly more complex than 'arrogant and snobby' as a meaningful rebuttal suggests.


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