Orthodoxy and Triumphalism

September 26, 2008

It seems recently that accusations of “triumphalism” have been thrown around pretty wildly. I find it curious that it is being used by (presumably) Orthodox to denigrate other Orthodox, most especially when, on the first Sunday of Great Lent every year, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy. If we make our boast in the Lord, or in his Cross, what is the harm in that? Did not the blessed St. Paul do the same?

Perhaps we need to turn our attention to what is meant by triumphalism.

It seems to me that, when I look at accusations of someone being “triumphalistic,” such an accusation normally occurs when one is chiding another about scaring off inquirers. Such people argue that it is unkind, even not Orthodox, to disturb the delicate sensibilities of those inquiring about the Faith, even to the point of not clearly saying what we believe. Don’t mention the ever-Virginity of the Theotokos, don’t mention full immersion baptism, and, whatever you do, don’t say anything about there being only One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church—we don’t want to offend people by telling them that they are not part of the Church, as they might “take that the wrong way.” In the approach the anti-triumphalists would take, we would lie to people—either blatantly, or by omission, or by presenting them with long, circuitous explanations that explain nothing—to bring them to the True Faith.

I must say, I most stringently disagree with this approach. There is a god who is the father of lies, but he most certainly is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who became man, who died to set the captives free from Hades, and will return again with glory to judge the living and the dead. The Christian God is the God who is Truth incarnate, and what congress can Truth have with lies? How will you bring someone to the Truth without telling them the truth? If, by refusing to lie to people to “bring them to the Church,” one becomes a triumphalist—by all means, let us all become triumphalists. Better that than a liar.

If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then the gates of hell will prevail over her—and Our Lord is made a liar. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, then she is just one more “church” among many, and there is therefore no truth to be found in the world. If the Orthodox Church is not triumphant, plainly stated, Christianity itself is a lie; and, if that is the case, St. Paul was right, and we are the most wretched of all men.

Often I am told “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” My answer to that is, the purpose of catching flies is to kill them; the Lord did not call us to catch flies, but to become fishers of men. We are to pull them out of the deep water of sin in which they are downing, and give life to them—how can we do that if we are deeper in the water than they? If we do not believe that there is one truth, one cross, one savior, one Lord, and one Church, then what have we to offer anyone that cannot be found elsewhere—and, elsewhere, requires less of people? Vinegar is bitter, yes, and sour tasting; but so, too, is the Truth to those who are accustomed to imbibing lies. Yet, that bitter draught of repentance, indeed, leads to nothing other than the Living Water of Christ Himself.

Are we afraid that the exclusivity of the Church will turn people away? Are we ashamed that the Church is exclusive in her understanding of those who are part of her and those who are not? If so, perhaps it is because we have forgotten that it is not we who exclude them; those outside the Church exclude themselves from her communion. If we were to say to a person “You cannot be part of the Church”—that would be sin. But it is no sin to tell someone “You are not part of the Church,” especially if you do so in the context of telling them how they can become part of the Church. The door is open, the table laid, and all are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb; but those without a wedding garment will be cast out, for many are called, but few are chosen (St. Matthew 22:13-14).

It is no sin to say what the Lord said Himself. This is made plain in the Gospel of St. John, in the sixth chapter; there are hard sayings, and many who followed turned away, because they could not bear them. The servant is not greater than the master, after all. If we would lead men to worship in spirit and in truth, we tell them the truth, the whole truth, about our Faith. We tell them, up front, what we believe. If they cannot receive it, they cannot—and that is not the fault of the Church. All are bidden equally to the feast; those who do not come, or who send excuses, are excluded; others will be brought in, from the highways and hedges.

For this particular sinner, nothing I can imagine is as full of life or joy as this understanding: that God became a man, so that I might become like Him. In return for this great gift, I will do whatever He asks of me, for as long as he gives me the strength to confess Him, and the Truth of His Holy Church, that is what I will do. If that is triumphalistic, so be it.

Pax vobicum+

As someone who fancies himself an intellectual (which shows my own pride more than anything else), I recognize a jarring trend in what we might call the “convert expereince” in Eastern Orthodoxy. It seems that, Fr. Seraphim of Platina’s wishes aside, those coming to Holy Orthodoxy, by and large, are still the well-educated, thinking individuals that in a bygone era of American life would have been considered white-collar folk. Nevertheless, these persons, whatever their work-status, tend to be by current standards well educated. That is, they have been exposed to certain vistas of history, philosophy, psychology, etc, even if they do not possess a great understanding of them. So many of these people were raised in nominally ‘Christian’ households, have at some point had their beliefs challenged, and then, instead of giving up on faith, to their credit, they plunge into the history of Christendom and discover the Holy Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church and seek entry into her communion.

At this time in North America, there is serious debate going on (if not openly, then at least quietly in parish hall coffee hours and on internet discussion boards) about the nature and character of the Church as it exists on this continent. What is her role to be in the larger Orthodox world? In what language should her liturgy be served? Should there be a union of the jurisdictions belonging to SCOBA? These are serious questions, and demand a great deal of thought, energy, and, most importantly, prayer. But it is in this climate of self-examination which many of our intellectual converts are coming to the Church, carrying with them the (post-?) modern expectation that individual feelings, intuitions, and ideas are of value and worth. In this time of questions, these people come to the Church, having read numerous reports of financial misdeeds, clergy misconduct, etc, and they imagine that they “know how to deal with all this.” Of course, this is nothing but fallacious pride that would set the judgment of the individual mind over and above the 2000 year wisdom of the Mind of the Church, and, as such, is totally unacceptable.

This time of questioning in North America has bred something of a “perfect storm” scenario in this regard. Potential converts are arriving that have been raised in an ideological climate of entitlement, where their parents and society at large have put mirrors into their hands and taught them to worship the image seen therein. They cannot be wholly blamed for believing that they alone can refound and reshape the world; after all, they’ve been brought up on pithy quotes from major figures in history, and raised to believe that each and every one of us can be changers of history–one thinks of the self-esteem movements in public school education in the last 25 years that taught us, “You can be anything you want to be.” Of course this is a ridiculous lie; you cannot be anything you want to be–you can only be what God wants you to be. This is why each of us is given talents and abilities unique to our personhood; to deny that is to deny personhood, to deny the operative work of God in our lives, and, ultimately, to pursue the satanic course toward the rule of the self-will, rather than the rule of the divine will. All the same, these folks are showing up at the doors of the Church, just when the Church in this continent is having a mild identity crisis. No strangers to identity crises, these potential converts come to the Church “knowing” what she needs to do to solve her problems. They have many and inventive solutions; but the fact that few of them seem to agree ought to be proof enough that the Holy Spirit, which is always one of unity and love, is not at work in these imaginative cogitations.

At the same time, there seems to be a lack of understanding about what the catechetical process is supposed to do. While it does serve to provide people with basic theological knowledge about the Faith, that is not its primary purpose. The purpose of catechism is to kill off the “old” man, so that the new one may be reborn in the Church. A person who comes to the Church with a lifetime of ego-centric selfishness, especially one that continues to imagine that there is value in in their own self-worth, cannot be catechized and receive into the Church in anything less than a year. Acquiring the phronema, the Mind of the Church, takes a while. It is foreign to our selfishness and pride; being people so inured to selfishness and pride, we are quite resistant to the process of acquiring the Mind of the Church, and as such, it is my belief that many people are being received into the Church who are merely fascinated with some aspect of the idea of Orthodox Christianity, but are not truly doing the work to become Orthodox in the heart. What, then, can be done?

First, we have to stress to people who are coming to the doors of the Church seeking entry that catechism is not just a confirmation process. It isn’t a stamp of approval on you that says “you believe the right things about Christ our God, so you can now commune with His Church.” A merely psychological assent to certain doctrinal positions is not enough. To enter the Church, you have to come to her in humility–you have to admit that everything you were before you came to her was wrong. Even the things in your past that you previously thought of as right or good; it has to be understood that there was nothing good in your past, because it was outside the perfecting ability of the Holy Spirit working on you as a member of Christ’s own Body. Anything less is holding on to the passion of pride, and will just cause more grievous harm to the person once they are received into the Church.

Second, people coming to the Church have to want it, more than anything. They have to desperately want it–to the point that they are willing to throw everything in their lives, as they are, away for the Truth. I believe this to have much scriptural support in the Gospels, from the lips of Our Lord himself. You have to have the humility to learn from the Church what is correct; coming to her seeking entry, you should never presume to judge her. It is the Church of the Lord which will be a judgment on the world (and the angels as well, according to St. Paul). No matter what is happening at any time within her life, the Holy Spirit guides and directs her. She has survived more and deeper crises than this. Remember that once, long ago, the world awoke and groaned to find itself Arian. The Nicene Faith eventually won out, and Orthodoxy was preserved. So will it always be, if we are to believe the words of the Lord, “for the Gates of Hell shall never prevail against [my Church].” Talk of ecumenism, the calendar, styles of music, and the language of worship does nothing but advance the position that the gates of Hell are prevailing against the Truth of the Church. Inquirers and Catechumens must not, in any situation, give in to the temptation of discussing these matters–and many of us who are already in the Church should refrain from discussing them so freely.

In conclusion, the only way to come to the Church, and, indeed, the only way to find Orthodoxy in the heart, is to come to her admitting that we know nothing. That is how we must smash the mirrors of our narcissism and pride, and come to her in all Truth. All that there is in the world lust of the flesh and the pride of life, according to St. John. It is all vanity and vexation of the spirit. If you would come into communion with the True Church, the visible, living, One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Faith, you must come to her in perfect submission and in all humility. For it takes nothing less than that to be willing to be taught by imperfect persons about a perfect thing. Those of us in the Church may not be shining examples of the Faith; we, too, are sinners working out our salvation in fear and trembling. No doubt, some of us will hear “Depart, I knew ye not” at the dread judgment of the Lord. But it is only here, inside Holy Orthodoxy, that you will find uncorrupt (and incorruptible) the faith unfeigned and a love unashamed.

Pax vobiscum+