Thursday, August 13, 2009

Settling In

When a person changes his religion, as I have, a lot of things change. This includes relationships. I have enjoyed new relationships, most at our new church, St. John Chrysostom in Fort Wayne. Most of my existing relationships have changed, too. This includes parents and in-laws, who are Lutheran. It includes friends who had converted to Orthodoxy before us or Orthodox friends we made along the way. And it includes my friendships with Lutheran pastors. (However, my relationships with relatives who are not Lutheran have remained the same - which is a real comfort amid so much change.)

Along my journey to Orthodoxy one of the critical issues I've been confronted with is 'what is different between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy.' I was personally preoccupied with this question before my conversion. In the end this question allowed me to get enough of a taste of Orthodoxy to allow me to choose and take the plunge (an apt way to refer to it!). But now this question is a sort of personal misery for me. I've moved beyond the obvious but not so deep differences, like praying to the Saints, using icons as more than pretty pictures, the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon, the use of Scripture, free will, and the Church. That isn't to say that I do not engage these issues in a personal way anymore, but it is to say that I am engaging them differently. Maybe the best thing I can say about it now is that I am struggling to acquire a level of familiarity and comfortability in Orthodoxy that is comparable to how I felt as a Lutheran. Or maybe I'm just in a hurry to acquire what is known as an "Orthodox mind." I don't know.

What I do know, though, is that my theological interest between Lutheranism and Orthodoxy is not the same anymore. It does no good for me to write theological treatises on how the Orthodox approach so many things differently, like the Trinity, the purpose and destiny of man's creation, what we need to be saved from, what Christ does, how salvation is given and appropriated, and the work of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox do approach these topics differently, even if the differences are only matters of nuance in most cases. But at this point, for me, it does little good to elaborate on them. And that's most likely because I don't yet feel comfortable in my own skin with it all yet! (I am only a catechumen, ha!). But it is also no good for me to take these things up right now, because I would want to do so in order to demonstrate the beauty of Orthodoxy, but I think I lack the right approach. This desire that I have isn't much different from how I felt as a Lutheran toward my parishioners and toward the youth I have been blessed to work with over the past six years. What is different now is that I have converted to Orthodoxy, and I find in her a more intimate relationship - one that surprisingly cleanses me and sets me aright (instead of me using what I know to cleanse and set aright what I find around me).

When a person wants to know what Orthodoxy is, or how it compares to Lutheranism, or wants to understand why or how I could make such a conversion, I don't think it helps for me to go through a list of doctrines. Even the most educated Lutheran grasps and emphasizes different things within Lutheranism, and his or her concerns will be deeply personal. And in Orthodoxy knowledge of doctrine is only introductory. If you were to read the most thorough description of every Orthodox doctrine and come to know how to describe it all in the most understandable way, still this is only an introduction to Orthodoxy. If you want to know what is at the heart of Orthodoxy, then you have to come and see (or personally commit or something along those lines).

But when I was a Lutheran, I wasn't exactly dealing with Orthodoxy at that level. I was gathering knowledge, but my knowledge was incomplete. I was working that knowledge into my already-existing Lutheran matrix, which only energized my search and inquiry. But when I converted, then I no longer had that matrix. I knew something at the heart was different, but I could not really put my finger on it. My ability to function spiritually was tied up until I could begin to resolve that tension (catechesis is a big help here). [Aside: I seem to pick up Orthodoxy on an intuitive level first, but my mind doesn't easily change, working from my Lutheran muscle-memory, which causes me all sorts of hardships when the two don't gel!] But talking about how Orthodoxy revolves around a different matrix than Lutheranism also cannot do anything to help anyone but me - or someone who is trying to discern what that particularly Orthodox matrix is.

So in the end, there are only two things I can do. Since I don't feel like I'm much help to anyone like I wish I were, I pray. Salvation belongs to God, and if anyone is going to approach Orthodoxy (to learn more, to find the Truth, to find answers to questions), then that is ultimately between he (or she) and God. Of course when the result of that inquiry is conversion, then what began as something personal unites you into something much bigger than yourself. Yet the personal part does not vanish, but in that new unity of life in the Holy Spirit the depth of one's personal spiritual experience deepens. One's relationship with the Holy Trinity deepens, which in turns deepens one's relationship with all creation renewed in Christ - saints, angels, animals, and whatever else is part of creation.

The other thing I do is try to relate what was significant for me. There are a variety of such issues. One that I'll share now, which was decisive in my conversion, has to do with the Holy Spirit. After much investigating, much comparing, much doctrinal hand-wringing, I came to realize that both Lutheranism and Orthodoxy made pretty good arguments. Knowledge wasn't going to settle the issue. What convinced me in the end was this: the Orthodox Church, in all that my investigating allowed me to see in her, matched the New Testament Church of the Scriptures in a significantly more profound way than what Lutheranism was capable of offering - even in its most idealistic form(s). Or to put it another way, I saw the Holy Spirit doing in the Orthodox Church what He was doing among the first Christians in the Scriptures (not to mention those Christians living after New Testament times). And as a Lutheran, if I were to stay a Lutheran, I would have to reject what I believed was the proper, natural, and scriptural work of the Holy Spirit.

Did I have all the answers? No. Do I yet? No. I try to remind myself that it took years of study to acquire an ease and familiarity with Lutheranism. To get that back vis a vis Orthodoxy will also take time, though it will likely still not be the same.

Writing this is cathartic for me. Perhaps sometime in the future I might venture to explore some of the more "doctrinal" issues. But it won't be as one who speaks "for" the Orthodox Church or who claims to know all about Orthodoxy. It will be as one who is trying to work out his own limited grasp on things that are limitless and inexhaustible. From what I'm told, that's all anyone can be expected to do. And in my opinion, isn't that the way it should be? If you can't be expected to fully explain your relationship with your spouse or your closest friends, then how can anyone be expected to fully and completely explain the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven and the blessedness of friendship with Christ?


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your comments on this, since I am feeling the same about my switch from Lutheranism to the Orthodox Church. I finally got up the nerve to speak with my own family about this last week, since come from a family of 100+ years' worth of Lutheran pastors. Believe it or not, they didn't give me a hard time for it; they just think I'm weird, which is OK. I don't find many people asking the tough "how come?" theological questions. Maybe God is protecting me from that onslaught until a time, when I can better respond. Right now, like you, I'm just a baby in the OC, yet I know in my heart that it's the right place to be. You're right: how can you explain something like that? Then again, maybe that's all people need to hear.

DebD said...

This is a process that I think can take a very long time for us converts. We are so ingrained with the knowledge part of our relationship with Christ and church(even Charismatics, but not quite to the same level as Calvinists and Lutherans). It is hard to just let go, and I'm not sure we should altogether anyway. It is just finding the right balance.

I found that most of my family just didn't seem to care all that much. My extended family is quite the melting pot of Protestantism, so becoming Orthodox was just something "weird" that I did (like Dave's family).