I mentioned earlier that the central issue that tears apart Evangelical leaders and their followers-turned-Orthodox is that of “Tradition”. I do not want to say poorly what others more capable than I have already said regarding the Orthodox understanding of Tradition (and tradition) but rather mention the phenomenon of the transformation of the Evangelical understanding of Tradition. Because I desire to speak of the concept in transition, and of people in transition, I will use the term Tradition to denote the Orthodox understanding of the concept regardless of the degree of agreement or revelation one might have. How one answers the question of tradition, indeed, even what one means by the word, will determin whether or not they hold the Traditional elements of Orthodoxy are silly, proud, or divisive.
The first mistaken presupposition I had to face as Protestant Inquirer into Orthodoxy was that I had a “hobbiest” attraction to the Church. This is the assumption that what appealed to my wife and I was the more obvious differences in worship. We were supposedly swayed by the incense and icons, the use of the word “thy”, the lack of electric guitar, or some other visceral element. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The fact of the matter was that when I first started visiting an Orthodox Church I wouldn’t have used the word “obvious” to describe these distinctive features: I would have used the word “superficial,” revealing my very Protestant belief that these external vestiges were of absolutely no importance. As it turns out, by the grace of God my ignorance and impiety saved me a great deal of trouble. I found myself at an Orthodox Church because I was looking for the right way to read my Bible, which I assumed was the central if not solitary means of my spiritual development. That was the only thing that really mattered in my mind, and I was not going to be deterred by unimportant preferences regarding music, architecture, little “icon” pictures, etc.
While I was only beginning to process what I was seeing on Sunday mornings people would approach me assuming that my interest in Orthodoxy was founded on an interest for Byzantine art, Russian music, or Early Church history. All of these were things I was beginning to care about and learning to deal with; and often that process was painful and awkward. Yet the standard Protestant assumption (which I too have been guilty of making) is that my hobby led me to a place where it could be indulged, and Orthodoxy provided me just that opportunity. I am afraid that when Protestants began came up to me with these assumptions in hand I just handled them rudely and incredulously.
This assumption, as I have hinted to before, comes very sensibly from a very Protestant idea. That is the position that none of “that minor stuff” is important, rather it should be subservient to the proclamation of the Word and the practical concerns that are therein entailed. We should care more about the clarity of the voice through the speaker and the accessibility of the message to the listeners. I want to call this position the principle of articulation because it is concerned in the practical concerns relating to the clearly and nakedly laying scripture before the masses. There is obvious and plenteous merit to the principle, but by itself this platform will start exchanging questions of should for questions of comfort and preference. The thinking isn’t wrong, but this thinking will lead one astray if it is held in a vacuum, as it is by Protestants. Put such a guiding principle on a platform and its imbalance will tip it over soon enough. What I am trying to point out is that the reason people subscribe completely to the principle of articulation is because of a deprived epistemology. In other words, since we cannot know anything other than the reading and understanding of Scripture is beneficial, the questions regarding how get answered by necessity, preference, or minimalism. One can parse out denominational distinctions from there.
This is illustrated well by a story that happened to a friend of mine. He was contemplating the claims of the Orthodox Church and shared some of his burning questions with his Evangelical teacher and leader. The teacher responded to the questions by saying, “You know I’m very interested in Medieval history and philosophy. I thought that no one at my church would be interested in it, but I found that there were actually other people who were knowledgeable and interested, and it ended up being a great fit for me.” Essentially the teacher here was trying to sell my friend on the idea that his hobby can be indulged at a Protestant church.
But what of my friend’s questions? What about the truth? Are the issues raised by Inquirers merely superficial?
The Inquirers decision to question and /or leave where they are at is in almost every case born from real, sincere, and important questions; and to assume otherwise (as I have said before) is necessarily offensive. Moreover such a response to an Inquirer showcases a fundamental understanding about foundations of Orthodoxy and the relevant questions. I am not trying to be mean or to insult people, merely trying guide Evangelicals away from a pitfall that postpones understanding and distances people. The better the dialog the better, right?
What then would be a proper response? Well, truth be told I think that the response is to come to the Church, but a more realistic thing to expect from the Evangelical Teachers and Leaders to whom I owe so much is twofold: first, I expect them to speak with Inquirers about the real issue of epistemic difference in what guides the Orthodox Church and what guides the Evangelical pluralities. Second (and this is a topic for a later date) I expect them to be honest about their own tradition and not name drop or plunder from the Saints as if they were contemporary Protestants.
I will close with a couple notes about my own epistemic transformation into Orthodoxy. As I said earlier, my impetus towards the Church came by way wanting to know how to interpret my Bible. I started with a minimalistic approach, which was in accordance with my Protestant upbringing. But I soon found out that Scripture did not play in such a confined epistemological space: namely, Christ and the Apostles did not read or write Scripture in a way that fits within the Protestant hermeneutic or epistemological framework. Of this much has been written, suffice it to say that I decided that being part of the Mystical Body of Christ that is His Church enabled me to fulfill the Biblical injunction to hold fast to the tradition of the Apostles, both “of word and epistle” (2nd Thess. 2:15).
Is not this Divine Comedy: that we would want happiness and be given a cross? That we would want forgiveness of sins and be given a spotless Lamb? That we would want guidance and simple Scripture and be given Icons and Incense? This is His way, this is His large and laughing creation, and we are His workmanship. Glory be to God in all things!