The reason to become Orthodox is because it is the Christian Church. It is not simply because it is the “ancient faith”, it is because it is the Christian faith. Certainly it is not because it is Greek, and it makes no sense to say that it is because it is Russian. There is nothing about ethnicity or geography that makes Orthodoxy superior. It is not even because Western Christianity has flaws (the history of the East is also pockmarked); it is Christianity itself that compels such a change, not because “the East” is inherently better than “the West”.
I do believe that the Christian “East” has more effectively preserved true Christian worship and doctrine, but I would have stayed Protestant (as several others have) in order to effect similar beneficial change. I did not become Orthodox because they do things better than “Western” Christians.
In fact, the Orthodox do a lot of things worse than the other Christian confessions. We haven’t formed outstanding university’s like the Roman Catholic’s, the Baptists, or the Reformed Protestants. Consequently our children find themselves having to leech off of University’s of other confessions; leaving their training to others and forcing them to be “theological guests” during their formative years. Our voice is barely audible among the others that proclaim the good news. As institutions go we don’t have much worth mentioning. I drive down the highway and I can see a Presbyterian Medical Building, a couple of Baylor’s medical plaza’s, and it seems that I cannot help but see Roman Catholicism’s pervasive influence our civilization. The other confessions are doing good works; works that speak highly of Christ and those who take his name. Everyday people’s lives are changed for the better by American Christians who are not Orthodox. Their good works are laudable; and if we are honest, it puts us to shame.
And yet we Orthodox often refuse to face up to our shortcomings, and Christ’s victory in the fragmented mess of denominations that surround us. Sure we’ve kept our hands busy with some good works, and I do not mean to diminish outstanding institutions like IOCC or Ancient Faith Radio, but let’s not kid ourselves. There’s a lot that we’re bad at.
Part of me takes pride when I see that our focus isn’t on certain troublesome standards of “success”. I like to joke about how ugly Orthodox websites tend to be – how we aren’t seeker friendly; we are too busy caring about the content rather than the package. And yet, this sort of pride tends to mask sloth and stubbornness. Is it a very big deal when Orthodox websites are simple and awkward? No. Is it refreshing to be around people who could care less about putting flash animation in their website because they are too busy praying and caring for people? You bet. But taking pride in my work because it avoids the failure of others is a dangerous way to live. This habit is sure to foster serious consequences.
In our case, the consequences have already arrived. Too frequently we talk about “being Orthodox” as if it were a club; when if it were a club it would be one that we would be ashamed of, and one I wouldn’t join. Too often we speak of the East, as if the East were redeemed while the West remains damned. Too much we relish our distinctiveness from those who devote their lives to Christ, and who – without the wealth divine grace that we have – are the tools by which Christ is drawing men to Himself. By calling ourselves “the East” as if that meant we are correct we have calcified what must be supple if the Holy Spirit is to move us. We grow out our beards, we drop the names of Saints, we cross ourselves, we buy more icons, we go to seminary, we call ourselves only by our Saint’s name, we buy a longer prayer rope, we read more books, we listen only to chant, we go to the services, and while standing the entire time we think only about being more Orthodox.
And Christ says to us: “I knoweth thee not”.
In the Orthodox parishes of this country, out of the blessed mouths of many good Christians, and from the hands of the pious one recognizes the dreadful prayer of the Pharisee: “Lord I thank you that I am not like this man”. These words, born from our own striving towards the Center of Orthodoxy, are our judgment and our shame.
The Church does not deserve her Husband, and therefore her voice finds sweet concord with that of the Publican: “Lord have mercy on me a sinner”. The Church is the Church repentant, the Church is the humble child. This is the Bride of Christ, this is the heart of Orthodoxy, this is why I came here. I fast and pray and fight, not because I am Orthodox, but because I am a Christian. Slapping the identifying name “Orthodox” when it’s not necessary serves to convolute the divine Church with the human institutions that serves the Church’s bidding. We are the one true apostolic Church, why suggest that we are anything else by dwelling on a label.
I know where most people are coming from when they speak of “the West” and “the East”. I appreciate books like Dr. David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East and West, and the specific misunderstandings of the Christian faith that are due to an unfortunate “western captivity”. The distinction is one that is sometimes unfortunately necessary. Most of the time however it is used as a crass title for something more complex: personally it is often haughty, off-putting, unattractive, and unnecessary. Every time we use it we risk being un-Christian. How should we talk about this distinction is something to be addressed elsewhere, when we have taken care of family business.
I became Orthodox to be part of the Bride of Christ. I came here for Him. I came here as a child of the West, with my heart full of love for the West, and (this is obvious) as one living in the West. The West taught me to love Christ and to have the courage to be a Christian. So I became Orthodox. I have not fled the West; I will never flee the West. Christ has come to redeem the world, and thank God He redeems the West too, because otherwise I would still be wandering around the Slough of Despondency. When I found Orthodoxy I found myself ushered into a bridal chamber in which I did not deserve to be, and which continues to astound me. This is Home, not “The East”. This is everyone’s Home, and lo it resides even in the West.