Becoming Orthodox – Enter the Search: Doubt Unspoken

1 December 2014

Joel Kalvesmaki authJoel Kalvesmaki is Editor in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, overseeing the production of Dumbarton Oaks’ flagship Byzantine publications, print and digital. He is active in the digital humanities and his research covers intellectual history in late antiquity, with a focus on ancient number symbolism and the writings of Evagrius Ponticus.

Doubt unspoken

In the heights of my faith there have been strong streaks of doubt and questioning. Is the Bible really the Word of God? Did Jesus really do the things claimed for him in the Gospels? Are we completely wrong? After all, we don’t hesitate to declare everyone else wrong. Some Christians, in an effort to sustain their reputation in Church, simply show unflinching doubt. When confronted by a pained Christian conscience, they simply say, “Don’t worry about it. God has a wonderful plan for your life! The answers will come later.” Comfort. But, as with Job’s helpers, there are often overtones of criticism. Pity that your faith is so weak. One day it may be as strong as my own.

Honest searchers, still committed to their churches, smile and carry on, finding what they can in the diet of books on offer. Some questioners, rebuffed by other believers, lose faith altogether. It is no secret, for example, that a sizeable number of secular humanists in America were once committed Southern Baptists.

This tension is also seen in our forms of church worship. Whether we realise it or not, our attitude and assumptions are lived out when we assemble. Sitting at a piano stool, leading worship, I have tried to understand what is going on. Although there is a great variety and style within Evangelical worship, whether it be Lutheran hymns or Charismatic choruses, common assumptions run throughout most of it.

In the worship of the hymn, our faith is found cerebral, celebrating the systematic theology of the Reformers in well measured stanzas, expressions that approach a reflection of the natural order of the world. The exposition of the Word of God as sung, regardless if comprehended, offers an assurance that we are squarely in the realm of Romans and thoroughly understand the mechanics of justification and sanctification.

In the worship of the chorus, the passion of our relationship with God is expressed in full rawness as we encounter the Divine. Through a liberation of the emotions we go beyond the veil?we and God, face to face and soul to soul.

And, of course, there are mixes of these two styles that criss-cross our churches. Many experiences in Evangelical worship go beyond these admitted stereotypes.

What undergirds both of these styles of worship is an assumption that we personally approach God and His Truth without veils. For the hymnodist, we sing the words of the Bible and its message, directly participating in the Word of God. For the Charismatic, we directly touch and feel the presence of God through a worship of heightened emotion. Both of these forms of worship are incredibly beautiful and creative. Yet the way we do it commonly assumes, not always, but most times, that we have gone beyond the barrier experienced by other less fortunate souls. Instead of the ritual and tradition of Catholics, we know God personally, via our precise hymnody or our pining emotions.

For those of us in an intense Evangelical community, to question whether our worship really is a direct connection to God or His Truth is to question the relation of the entire community to God. Righly so, for if an Israelite had dared challenge aspects of the liturgy surrounding the Temple, he too would have been seen as questioning the position of Israel as the people of God.

Our worshipful insistence that each of us has a personal relationship with God makes it difficult to admit we really don’t know God on the level we claim. Most of us grope in the dark, yet are compelled to talk about a daily walk with God that is as familiar as that with our best friends. But if we are honest about the secrets in our hearts, many of us will admit that, for all our effort to know God, we have a closer and more personal relationship with each other. Yet we are part of a community who confess direct access to Truth. Anyone unable to affirm this public proclamation in their private life is not adequate.

Gone East

This was not so plain to me when I first discovered the worldview of the early Christian Church. I was very much in the center of Evangelicalism, and I had the attitudes of self-referential self-assurance. So when I first met an OM brother who was studying to join the Eastern Orthodox Church, I didn’t know how to react. He was a graduate of Wheaton, a very intelligent and passionate man who was seeking the heart of God just as sincerely as I was, yet looking into a body of Christians I knew were clearly heretical.

Incense? Good works for salvation? Icons? Prayers to Mary and the Saints? Kissing rings, fingers, and old bones? Eating Jesus Christ? This is just Catholicism without the Pope! Come on! No one in their right mind would go into that, not if they were truly born again, not if they’re from Wheaton!

My friend Chris and I talked late, making forays into well-travelled theological waters. This was my introduction to the world of the Eastern Church. It never occurred to me to consider that the churches planted by the Apostles in Antioch, Turkey, and Greece in the first century had never disappeared and were still around. This only served to uncover my ignorance of Church history, my attitude that somewhere in the middle ages genuine Christianity vanished into thin air, awaiting to be resuscitated by the prophets of the sixteenth century.

As we talked I discovered that Chris was not the only one making this move. In the last ten years there has been a very large move of Evangelical Americans who have, in the thousands, been received into the Antiochian Orthodox Church. The decisions of former Evangelical leaders Peter Gillquist and Franky Schaeffer were unfathomable to me at the time. All I knew was that this was a gauntlet thrown at my feet. This mass conversion from my mother bed of Evangelicalism represented a truth claim I needed to confront.

Arguments made in some Orthodox books Chris had given me made some good points, but I was still thoroughly confident that the claims were out of harmony with the Scriptures. I definitely wanted to refute them. I admit I also wanted to refute my friend’s life, to find flaws in his character, false motives by which I could trash his entire search. Possibly he’s been offended by an Evangelical or maybe he lost a girlfriend. Actually, I wonder if he’s really bothered to read the Bible! Anyway, poor Chris has lost his sense of objectivity, most certainly.

I walked away from our time together concerned for my lost brother, yet with another coal of curiosity stoked and an openness to initiate my own studies into Church history and its relation to the teaching of Scripture.