Learning from the East: An Interview with an Orthodox Theologian

This is Neil again. I’m still trying to learn WordPress, but for now I’ve really got to say that this system provides us with much more interesting information about the blog – yesterday someone arrived after typing “how to put together a rifle” into a search engine. Presumably, Todd will say more in the future about handling weapons. Today, I would like to provide snippets of a very interesting interview that Again magazine conducted with the Orthodox theologian Bradley Nassif (“a courageous and enthusiastic pioneer of Orthodox-evangelical dialogue around the world”). The interview is interesting in its own right, but we might also wish to consider if more Catholics should listen to Dr Nassif’s diagnosis and counsel about the role of the laity, learning from evangelicals, and the dangers of “a stifling theology of repetition.” Please feel free to comment.

One task of a good theologian is to critique the contemporary life and practices of the Church. Theologians must know the tradition well so they can help the Church stay faithful to it. One of the key areas I’ve been concerned about is the need to empower the laity, and help them redeem the routines of everyday life.

In working with ordinary Christians over the years, I’ve concluded that most of us have underestimated our spiritual potential. Our existing attitudes and practices in many Orthodox parishes around the world have effectively disempowered common Christians as second-class citizens in the Church. Many—by no means all—of those ordained to a hierarchical ministry frequently misinterpret the Ignatian model of ministry along the lines of a dictatorial or “guru” form of leadership, in which the deacon, priest, or bishop thinks and acts as though he is above and beyond accountability to those he serves. All this has led to a widespread systemic illness in the Church from the top down. Church leadership ends up virtually controlling the laity and weakening their ability to fulfill their spiritual gifts.

Fortunately, this crippling state of affairs is gradually beginning to change in some parts of the Orthodox world, such as the Greek Orthodox clergy/laity congress and the Orthodox Christian Laity organization. Still, I’m convinced that it’s time for us to unleash the laity! Bishops and priests need to work harder at exercising a Christ-based model of leadership which empowers their flock with the gospel so that the whole body of Christ may function effectively.

Closely related to that is the need to help parishioners integrate their faith with the workaday world of everyday life. I try to do this by offering weekend seminars in our churches entitled “Desert Spirituality for City Dwellers.” When I worked as a Honda salesman, I found myself in need of integrating faith with the marketplace. I ended up viewing my job as a spiritual arena where I would die to self and grow through all the various tasks I did throughout the day. Making 20 phone calls a day became an exercise in ascetic discipline; responding to a rude customer became an opportunity to grow in patience; working with a joyful heart gave witness to the Resurrection of Christ in my soul. I began seeing my daily tasks in a new light. I transformed my vision of work into a spiritual cause. That’s what I mean when I say we need to help people connect the dots between Scripture and what they do at work and home.

There are at least three things I’ve learned from evangelicals in relation to your question. First, it is possible to be “sacramentalized” but not “evangelized.” By that I mean it’s possible to be religious but lost. Our people can go to church every Sunday, take communion, tithe, even be ordained, but still not know God. That is a great tragedy that can be easily overcome by our own mystical theology.

Second, we need to focus on the centrality of Christ, not the centrality of “Orthodoxy.” Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not against the creeds, councils, and Fathers of the Church, nor am I minimizing the fullness of the tradition. How could I and still be Orthodox? Rather, I’m against the formal, dead sort of Orthodoxy. Too often we become obsessed with Orthodoxy as a sick religious addiction. We think that just because people go to church, they must know God, when in reality many do not. Just because the Gospel is formally included in the liturgy doesn’t mean that our people have understood and appropriated its message. Many of our churches really need to recover the evangelical dimensions of the faith. I believe our Church is ready for renewal, and I’m ready to help the bishops and priests if they wish to ask me, because I’m fairly certain about where the Church has been and where it needs to go in light of our mystical theology.

Third, we need to be clear about the gospel and make it the core of our life and ministry. Following our Trinitarian and Incarnational vision of life, we need to constantly recover the personal and relational aspects of God in every life-giving action of the Church. We need to be clear about the message we preach. Jesus, in His Trinitarian relations, died for our sins on the cross, rose from the grave, and is coming again. He is Lord of all, and that needs to be proclaimed in every way possible, which is exactly what our liturgy does.

The most urgent need in world Orthodoxy at this time is the need for an aggressive internal mission of rededicating or converting our priests and people to Jesus Christ. The Great Commission demands it. But we aren’t focusing on that. Instead, we’re constantly contrasting ourselves with the Catholics or Protestants and letting that dictate the emphases of our ministries. This is very dangerous because it takes our attention off the Lord and onto theological differences. As a theologian, I know very well that differences do matter and it’s important for our people to become aware of them—especially in the Bible belts. But enough is enough. We’ll be better off spiritually if we take massive action to help our parishioners simply grow in theosis (divinization).

We need to figure out how to relate to unchurched people in North America, because most of our converts are not unbelievers, but disillusioned believers from other Christian traditions. We should not accept all of Orthodoxy uncritically today, or deny that there are parts of our ancient liturgies which seem to have no biblical justification. There needs to be a liturgical renewal that is consistent with the time-honored practices of our Church’s mission theology.

Our Church music exemplifies the problem. Instead of creating new American tunes for our theological lyrics, we betray the faith by simply watering down Byzantine or Russian notation to make it palatable for Americans—as though there was something eternal about Byzantine or Russian sound! Think about it. How were the Slavs originally evangelized? By translating the Bible, Fathers, and liturgy from Greek into the language and culture of the Slavs. How did St. Athanasius defeat the Arians? By taking scriptural teaching and translating it into the Hellenistic concepts of pagan philosophers (for example, he redefined homoousios to mean Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father).

So why are some American bishops so afraid of doing that today? I think it’s because they’re deathly afraid of making any changes that would alter the faith. That, of course, is praiseworthy, but it simply is not the way Orthodoxy has adapted to local cultures. The history of missions always tells us to contextualize the faith by putting it in the garments of the cultural idioms of the country it inhabits. We are not to fossilize it through a stifling theology of repetition.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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