In the previous essay I said that Orthodoxy missed the opportunity to deal with the Protestant problem 500 years ago when the problem was far more solvable. (Of course there were huge barriers to dialog back then that no longer exist today, so that period had barriers all its own.) Doing something about it today will require a bit more divinely inspired creativity. What sort of creativity? Let me begin by saying I don’t know. But I do believe that there are historic precedents that the church can look back upon as it moves forward.
I’ll return to my original contention that the fundamental description of salvation for St. Paul (and also St. John and the rest of the New Testament) is to be in Christ, in the Spirit, or filled with the Spirit (or as it is described in Acts, the Spirit was poured out). One cannot understand what salvation is nor what being part of the Church – the Body of Christ – is, nor what the Kingdom of God and the renewal of all things is, if one doesn’t begin with the fundamental assertion that if we are in Christ we are being saved, and conversely the only way to be saved is to be in Christ.
Now this formulation is admittedly difficult to define. What does being in Christ mean? Exactly how is it accomplished? What does it look like when it happens? We humans (and especially we post-Enlightenment humans) demand answers to this sort of thing. But God’s ways are notoriously vague. His mighty works are best described as a burning bush, a cloud that is black in the day and fiery at night, a storm, silence …
All these things are impossible to quantify.
This is why the Jewish believers were scandalized when Gentile believers tried being Christians on terms other than the Jewish believers had set. The Jewish believers had centuries to quantify the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, and the Gentile attempt at being Christian didn’t fit into that formula. In response, Paul was led to a new description of our life together that went beyond salvation motif of being “in Christ”. While salvation is being “in Christ,” that salvation implies a leveling of the playing field within the Body of Christ. That, according to St. Paul is our justification by faith and not by works of the Torah. This was a creative solution that allowed everyone to reconceptualize the effects of salvation without changing the fundamental meaning and description.
A similar thing happened in the 12th century. Latin Christians were scandalized by what was going on in Greece. Early Christianity had a few centuries to quantify the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, and now, Pascha and Pentecost, and the practices on the Holy Mountain in Greece didn’t fit into that formula. In response, St. Gregory of Palamas fleshed out a new description of salvation as theosis. This was a creative solution that allowed everyone to reconceptualize salvation without changing the fundamental meaning and description.
One could also mention the concilliar period and the insights of the Cappadocian fathers, the desert fathers, and others.
I propose that we reached another such juncture several decades ago. Along with the bush, the cloud, the storm, the silence, Pascha, Pentecost, the divine light/theosis, Orthodoxy has now quantified the reality that salvation occurs within the church. But is being “in Christ” precisely the same thing as being “in the church”? If “the church” is properly understood, I suspect it does indeed mean precisely the same thing. But “the church” in question now in the 21st is a narrowly defined church: the Eastern Orthodox Church, or more specifically, the canonical Eastern Orthodox Church, which is only the SCOBA jurisdictions here in North America.
Given the character of the internecine battles, there is a sense that “church” and “Orthodox” have become arbitrary and a bit club-ish in the modern context. The typical solution is to make Orthodoxy more open and friendly to the needs of converts. But this misses the point. In the end, the conversion to Orthodoxy is as much conversion to ancient Byzantium as it is to Christ. Converts are required to take up the yoke of Byzantium – leaders and their courtiers, who dress up and act like Oriental despots, making divine liturgy look and feel like an Oriental throne room, complete with ancient Oriental sensibilities and actions, etc. And if one doesn’t put on this yoke of ancient Oriental serfdom, then one isn’t going to become a Christian in the fullest sense of the word.
There have been protests to this despotic system, such as the Western Rite (WR). But it is tolerated at best and more commonly despised among proper Orthodox. (I have personal experience with this. I prefer WR but have learned to keep my mouth shut among real Orthodox people. Many of them tend to growl, snap, and froth like a Chihuahua protecting a bone when someone mentions their preference for Western Rite.)
Of course the blame isn’t one sided. From experience I can say that WR parishes can be stand-offish and independent in a particularly unhelpful manner. But a full discussion of why the Western Rite hasn’t worked well is far beyond the limits of this essay.
In short, to date, the Spirit has not yet raised up a new Peter and Paul to speak to both the old guard and the new about a different way to understand our life together beyond the bush, the cloud, and the church that is “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.” Maybe the first step is to understand that for Protestants to take on the yoke of Orthodoxy and its subsequent “works of the Tradition” is to “nullify the grace of God” (Gal 2:21) which God has poured out upon them without the permission of hierarchs and despots.
Then again, it’s probably not the case, and this interpretation of justification by faith, this “new perspective on justification” is probably just another Protestant fad. The Orthodox Church mistaken? What was I thinking!