The Orthodox Plot

by Elias Blum

This podcast {click here} is a very interesting critical account of the Radical Reformation by an Orthodox priest. My own theological background is very much steeped in the traditions and the assumptions of the Radical Reformation: the right of private judgment in religious matters, believer’s baptism, democratic congregationalism, anti-clericalism, anti-sacramentalism, and an intense focus on personal (and social) ethics, has always been integral to my understanding of ‘true christianity’.

This podcast argues that all of this is – consciously or subconsciously – rooted in the idea of the ‘great apostacy’. This is the claim, made by the Radical Reformers, that the historical church deviated from the teachings of Jesus at the end of the apostolic age, and that we have to go back to the bible – and in particular to the gospels and to Acts – for a pattern of christian life in community, rather than looking to the traditions of the church of late antiquity and the middle ages or patristic writings.

I find the Orthodox perspective very challenging because it goes against so much of what I have always stood for. But I also find elements of it quite appealing. From what I can see as an outsider, the Orthodox position on salvation and sanctification makes much more sense, both ethically and in terms of Jesus’ teaching, than the weird blood-sacrifice magic trick of evangelical theology. Likewise, the Orthodox approach to the bible – recgonising that the bible is not ‘the Word of God’, but merely a witness to the Word – makes sense to me. After all, the Word was ‘made Flesh’, not ‘made Book’. The rich, timeless, symbolic liturgical worship is also attractive, at least aethetically, and certainly better than the chat-guitar-lecture-guitar-coffee structure of my own non-conformist background.

But I am, perhaps, too much rooted in the Radical Reformation – too much of an individualist, an egalitarian and a rationalist – to accept the ecclesiological premises of Orthodoxy. At the bottom of it all, I still think that half a dozen people meeting in a living room with a much-debated bible, bread rolls and a bottle of merlot is as glorious, in its own way, as all the golden finery of the Hagia Sofia.

And I’m too much of an ‘activist’, with too much of that non-conformist social gospel conscience, to get concerned about the sort of things – liturgy and hierarchy, doctrine and tradition – that the Orthodox church seems to value. I still think that healing the sick, comforting the afflicted, reparing the world, building peace, establishing justice, doing mercy, and all that good stuff, is much closer to the heart of Jesus’ teaching than anything to do with creedal trinitarianism or getting the finer points of priestly apparel right. I guess there’s more emphasis in my tradition on orthopraxy – in terms of practical christian ethics – than orthodoxy.

Yet, even so, I am intrigued. I want to learn more. I’m not shutting myself off to these things, just because they are alien or challenging. In fact, I’ve been throwing myself into it. For the last few weeks I’ve been not only listening to the podcast linked above, but also watching every youtube video I can find on Orthodoxy, and browsing the Orthodox wiki.

On the Ship of Fools website, which I used to frequent, they joked about the Orthodox ‘Plot’, a sort of hiden conspiracy of Orthodoxen who would draw folks in to the One True Church – a reference, I think, to the fact that many high Anglicans are increasingly drawn to the Bosphorus rather than the Tiber. I guess all I am saying is that I can certainly see the appeal. I really can.

So I have resolved, partly for the sake of curiosity, and partly for the purposes of spiritual edification (because it’s not good to be prideful in the notion that one’s own views are necessarily correct, or to imagine that we cannot benefit from something difficult to hear) to visit an Orthodox church. I will go with an open mind, just to see and listen, even though I might not understand. I will keep my mouth closed and my heart open. Let’s see where, if anywhere, this leads. I do not expect that it will lead to a conversion to Orthodoxy, but it might at least lead to a deeper appreciation and respect for the Orthodox way, and perhaps to some maturation and further development of my own idiosyncratic faith.