Journey to Orthodoxy:
Differing Viewpoints

by Thomas Katsampes

February 5, 2008

I'm currently enrolled in the catechism class at St. George Greek Orthodox Church. My intention originally was to blog each catechism class so that I could keep a record of my progress through the course. The course is approximately 14 weeks, every Monday night. As usual life got in the way and I wasn't able to blog each class. Until last night, the classes seemed to be fairly routine in the sense that most of the information presented I already knew from my readings from Scripture, in Pelikan or Coniaris, or from other sources.

Fr. John was our instructor last night. He seems to me to be a bit of a mystic. I'm not even sure I can agree with everything he said. I listened intently and it was not that my mind glazed over - but rather my spirit glazed over. He gave a long discussion about the incarnation, Theotokos, and the saints, some of which I found to be helpful. But recurring question in my mind was, what do these things have to do with Jesus? How do these things bring me closer to God? All Christians believe that Jesus is the center of the faith: as the Divine Liturgy proclaims endlessly, we worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet, even in the discussion of the Incarnation Fr. John somehow managed to convert the miraculous into the mundane. This is by no means a criticism: after all Fr. John was not preaching a sermon. I wasn't necessarily expecting to be moved. But it all seemed so dry... Maybe the emphasis was simply in the wrong place.

When I think of the Incarnation I think of John 1:1-14 which ends with: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth." Yet, except for a passing reference to John 1:14, this critical passage was hardly discussed. We dissected the difference between Christotokos and Theotokos (a useful discussion due to the ancient heresies whereby Christ was proclaimed not to be God the Son but rather a human in which God dwelt), but we somehow managed to say little regarding the Divine intervention in history that was the Incarnation of the Word. When I think of the Theotokos I think of the Magnificat of Mary in the opening chapter of Luke:
And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
Is this not the greatest contribution of Mary qua Mary to the Christian faith? And strangely enough, we see that the Magnificat is not about Mary, it is about God the Trinity. All generations call Mary blessed not for Mary's sake, but because she did bare God the Word, in this she is truly Theo-Tokos (God-barer). But Mary's Magnificat was not mentioned in our discussion of Theotokos.

When I think of saints I think of St. Paul's oft-used phrase, "Beloved of God, called to be saints..." I think of those whose faith was tested early in the Church and found to be true. I think of St. Peter crucified upside-down because he did not believe he was worthy to die like Jesus. I reflect on modern-day saints: Mother Teresa who fed the poor in India for decades. Finally, let us not forget those who have laid down their lives in the defense of our way of life: "Greater love has no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends." Mother Teresa got barely a passing mention; those who gave their lives so that we could live in freedom were not mentioned.

Then I somewhat brazenly asked simply, "Do saints make war?" Even though we were sitting in a church named after one of the most venerated saints in Eastern Orthodoxy - St. George - who is nearly always depicted as a Roman officer mounted on a horse, victoriously slaying the Dragon, Fr. John spent about 10 minutes attempting to answer my question without actually answering my question. He didn't mention the word "war."

Finally, I took issue with the notion of communal salvation. To paraphrase from last night, "Orthodoxy is a communal worship, not an individual worship; salvation is communal, not individual; God looks at the community, not at the individual." Individualism bad - community good. But this view just does not square with Scripture because God looks at both. "Choose this day whom ye will serve: as for me [individual] and my house [communal] we will serve the LORD," "If my people which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, then will I hear from heaven, and forgive their sin, and heal their land." [communal]. "He that believeth on the Son hath life; he that believeth not is condemned already..." [individual].

I could go on and on...but obviously Christianity has both communal and individual elements. So maybe I just didn't see eye-to-eye with Fr. John on many things. Fr. John is a good person and a good teacher. He was certainly spot-on about one thing. The Orthodox do not believe that any one man, or one group, has a monopoly on the truth. We find truth in the Scriptures and Holy Tradition as believed, taught, and confessed by the Church as a whole. Within the Orthodox faith there are a panoply of differing views, perhaps there are as many different views as there are people. The beauty of Orthodoxy is that we all lay those differences aside on Sunday morning and join together in the worship of the Holy Trinity, which we all share and without which there is no point in being a Christian.
Journey to Orthodoxy
God Became Man and other thoughts
Thoughts on Mary
Visiting the Church
Returning to the Church
The Communion Question
Losing the Sense of the Sacred
Conversation with Fr. Tom
Icons and Worship
Differing Viewpoints
Can we truly know?
Faith and Works
Child Baptism