Saturday, July 31, 2021

Dipping a Toe Into Orthodoxy

I attended my first Orthodox catechism yesterday. A group of around 10 of us met in the church’s old temple. That was where I attended Divine Liturgy at that church for the first time, more than a year ago. The community has since grown so much that Sunday services had to be relocated to the much larger dining hall. Nice problem to have, when you consider how church attendance is in sharp decline in so many places. It seems that people are yearning for the certainty of strong faith in these tumultuous times. The Orthodox, by their very nature of being Orthodox, certainly provide that firm foundation. Even better, they manage to do it without being overly zealous, scripture-flinging fundamentalists. I’ve had my fill of that for one lifetime.

The deacon who led the class gave a good overview of Orthodox soteriology. Similar to the Catholics, the Orthodox see salvation as an ongoing process, not as a one-and-done intellectual assent that happens during the emotional peak of an altar call. When folks of a one-and-done mindset ask if someone is “saved,” Catholics often reply: “I was saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved.” See, for example, Ephesians 2:8, Philippians 2:12, and Romans 13:11. 

The Gospels themselves lean toward a past-present-future basis of salvation. When Christ affirms, for example, that loving God and neighbor is the key to gaining eternal life (Luke 10:25-29), he didn't mean just offering up a single act of love: You have to keep working at it. (And no, that doesn't equate to “salvation by works,” as Protestants so often claim of Catholicism. It just means that being a follower of Christ entails walking in his footsteps and following his example.)  

There is a difference, though, between the Catholic and Orthodox views on soteriology. Having been on both sides of the discussion, I’ll try to offer a fair summary.

In Catholicism, your continuing salvation is dependent on your ongoing fidelity to the church and the frequent reception of the sacraments – in other words, being a “good Catholic” in obedience to Rome. Catholics once took the notion of extra ecclesiam nulla sallas – no salvation outside the church – to mean that you couldn’t be saved outside the Catholic church at all. The church has backed off that stance in recent years, but Pope Boniface VIII declared unequivocally in a 1302 proclamation that “it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff.” More than a century later, coming out of the Council of Florence, Rome was again adamant that “none of those existing outside the Catholic church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the ‘eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels.’”  

It was also decreed at the Council of Florence that the soul of any person with unconfessed mortal sin on his soul at the time of death, or who was not relieved of Original Sin through baptism, would be sentenced to eternal torture in hell. So get yourself baptized and confess to your priest before it’s too late.

In Orthodoxy, the church itself is not the source of your salvation. Rather, the church helps orient you toward salvation. Through active participation in the life of the church – which includes reception of the sacraments – we become more like Christ through an ongoing process of purification that leads us through this life and beyond. That’s the heart of theosis – becoming by grace what God is by nature, in the words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria.

Of course, being partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4), the very heart of theosis, is only possible if you believe that man is inherently good, the crown of God’s creation, made in his image, with the potential to become as pure as we were before the Fall. As the deacon at our class illustrated, the concept of theosis has never been popular in the West because of the negative – often extremely so – Protestant view of humanity. Luther, of course, famously referred to human beings as dunghills whose inherent ugliness can only be hidden from view by the pure white snow of God’s grace. We never actually stop being dunghills; our filth is merely covered so God can bear to look upon us. Thus, we never really become cleansed; God’s grace is imputed but never infused. Our inner nature never changes. Consequently, we never progress toward anything better. 

Luther probably adopted this view because of his own extreme scrupulosity. He would spend hours compiling lists of his sins and going to daily confession, only to find no relief from his view of himself as nothing but human waste. His solution was to proclaim that all humans could not be otherwise, that his warped conception of himself must hold true for all people in their fallen human state. Spurred on by his (reasonable) opposition to the selling of indulgences, he went on to launch a religious reformation that held his deeply skewed view of humanity at its core.

The total depravity of mankind, of course, is one of the five points of Calvinism – which therefore has just as dim of a view of the nature of humanity as Luther did.

All of this has always seemed to me like an ungrateful slap in the face of the God who proclaimed that his creation was good.

There was, however, one point in our discussion that flung me back into my own personal struggles with the idea of the “omni-God”: omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent. Our deacon went through Calvin’s view of predestination, the bleak notion that no matter what you do, now matter how holy of a life you might live, God has already chosen whether you’ll be saved or damned. 

I’ve always found that idea abhorrent. Yet my struggle to reconcile free will with divine omniscience makes it difficult for me to reject the idea outright.

Here’s what I mean: If one of God’s attributes is omniscience, then he always knows what choices we’ll make before we even make them. If I’m presented with Options A, B, and C, an omniscient God always knew I’d pick, say, Option B. So do we really have free will, or is it just an illusion? Were Adam and Eve always destined to eat of the tree? Are we just puppets on strings?

I struggle to work through the implications of where this idea leads. It doesn’t seem to leave us much agency, and while it’s not the same thing Calvin proposed, it more or less gets us to the same place, in that we don’t have much say in the fate of our souls if the scripts of our lives have already been written. And it seems to reduce “free will” to a stark binary choice of doing things God’s way or being cast into eternal torment, which is less a choice and more an ultimatum.

I won’t press the point any further for now, except to note that I also struggle with the tension between divine omnipotence and omnibenevolence on one hand, and suffering and evil on the other. Coming to grips with the omni-God in the context of the world we live in is not a new dilemma for me, as I’ve documented here recently. But it is something I need to sit with before I can make any significant progress on this tentative journey and press deeper into Orthodoxy.

(Photo by Nuta Sorokina, from Pexels.)

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