A reader who left Orthodox Christianity to become an Evangelical responds to my Time magazine essay. I’ve altered some of the details for the sake of privacy:
Everything you said, Rod, was dead on in that article. Until you got to the very last part — for me — where you say that all of that’s not true in Orthodoxy. My experience of Orthodoxy was precisely what you said about your experience of Roman Catholicism. And every time I go to an Orthodox church it’s just the same. There is not a word spoken of changing our lives, of accepting Jesus, of praying, of reading the Scriptures, of behaving differently than anyone else, sexually or otherwise. It’s staggering. So the idea that you found all of that in the Orthodox church seems so odd to me. It’s as if I went to Fr. Rutler’s church in New York City and said — aha! Now I’ve found people who really believe — and thought that all RC churches were like that. I think your experience of Orthodoxy is a glorious thing, and it recommends Orthodoxy, of course… but to think that it’s that way in most American Orthodox churches is as crazy as thinking that all RC priests preach about contraception every week.
I appreciate this e-mail and the chance to clarify this point. I absolutely do not believe that all Orthodox churches are this way. I’ve been really fortunate in having most of my experiences of Orthodoxy in congregations in the South, which have been heavily convert congregations. I’ve been to a handful of Orthodox parishes in other parts of the country, and they were exactly as the reader describes. I don’t believe that Orthodoxy in America is, on the whole, any better off than Roman Catholicism in this respect, though that’s just a guess; I have no way of knowing. What I did find within the Orthodoxy I met in the parishes I’ve been part of is a greater sense of the fullness of the faith, in both its call to repentance and holiness, and call to love and mercy. But I fully concede that this is almost certainly not the norm, and I don’t want readers to be misled by me on this point. The problem is in this line:
There is, of course, no such thing as the perfect church, but in Orthodoxy, which radically resists the moralistic therapeutic deism that characterizes so much American Christianity, I found a soul-healing balance.
Orthodoxy in theory (and, in my parish, in practice) is very different in its approaches than what most of us are used to. When I first became Orthodox, a new friend in our parish said it would take about 10 years to become Orthodox. I didn’t get her point, but now I do. It’s such a different way of thinking of God, the self, and the Christian life from what we in the West are used to. In my experience, it’s made for a healthier spiritual life, but no doubt about it, if a priest or a layperson is bound and determined to avoid an encounter with the All-Holy, all the doctrines and spiritual teachings and Sacraments in the world will not help. Again: there is no such thing as the perfect church. Please do not read me as saying that Orthodoxy as it actually exists in many parts of America today has escaped what afflicts American Catholicism! The more you get away from people who worship the ethnos instead of the Logos, the more likely you are to find the real thing. And even when you find a priest and a parish that are spiritually dead, you probably aren’t going to find a priest who openly denies or seriously undermines the teachings of the Church. So there’s that advantage.