An Outsider’s Appreciation for Orthodoxy

I open, if I may, with some personal references and intersections with Orthodoxy, which have occurred several times in my life. As I was finding my way past the fundamentalism of my childhood during my years in graduate school, I became enamored of Orthodox Christianity—in part because it was (as I believed at the time) such a dramatic contrast to fundamentalism. My interest, I suppose, was a classic case of reaction formation.

I followed up on that interest under the guidance of one of my mentors at Princeton, Horton Davies, and with Karlfried Froelich at Princeton Theological Seminary. I remember being dazzled at the time by the intricate liturgy, each gesture and utterance suffused with significance, sometimes several layers of meaning. The notion of saints and the veneration of Mary Theotokos were a bridge too far for this cradle evangelical, but I was intrigued nevertheless.

My second intersection with Orthodoxy occurred during my time at Columbia, when a promising graduate student, Philemon Sevastiades, asked me to be his mentor. Any mentorship, it turned out, went in the other direction. He answered my endless questions about Orthodoxy and introduced me to the vagaries—and the internecine politics—of Greek Orthodoxy, a tradition that sets itself apart from the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Philemon was ordained a priest during his doctoral studies, but as nearly as I can tell he backed the wrong candidate during an ecclesiastical succession and headed off in a kind of exile to lead Twelve Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Duluth, Minnesota. I visited him there once, and he continued my education in Orthodoxy. (Tragically, he died shortly thereafter at the age of forty-eight.)

Philemon was a kind and gentle man, and I miss him. But he was not without his opinions on ecclesiastical matters (for reasons I’ve forgotten, he treated George Stephanopoulos’s father with special obloquy). And Philemon had nothing but scorn for the Antiochian Orthodox Church, which he regarded as a redoubt for fundamentalists, like Jack Sparks, who had converted to Orthodoxy.

Finally, for the past decade I have been working on a documentary about the Orthodox Church in Alaska. During several visits there, I have come to appreciate what David Ford calls “the profound and boundless glory of what it means to follow Jesus in the Orthodox tradition.” We have filmed in churches and cathedrals from Sitka in the east all the way to Atka in the Aleutian Islands (far closer to Russia than is Sarah Palin’s front porch). Time and brutal winters have worn down some of the churches, but the liturgy and the icons are magnificent. The quality of the singing varies from place to place, but during the annual St. Herman pilgrimage from Kodiak to Spruce Island in 2015, it was nothing short of sublime—perhaps in part because Metropolitan Tikhon was participating that year.

David Mahaffey, archbishop of Sitka and Alaska, has been my most recent Orthodox interlocutor (he passed away, or as the Orthodox say, “fell asleep in the Lord,” last year). Bishop David, as he preferred to be called, couldn’t have been more gracious and welcoming, continuing my education in Orthodoxy. When I learned while filming the Pascha celebrations at St. Innocent Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage that my mother had passed away, Bishop David immediately conducted a special liturgy for her and assured me that in the Orthodox tradition anyone who dies during Holy Week goes immediately to heaven (I doubt that the earthly Nancy Balmer would have appreciated such concessions, but I expect that the newly transformed Nancy did).

The burden of this far too lengthy prologue is to say that I have profound appreciation for the Orthodox tradition. I love its liturgies and icons, its devotion to sacred space and its deference to history. That said, I suspect—and Mr. Ford’s essay confirms—that I was very mistaken those many years ago to believe that I was drawn to Orthodoxy because it seemed to be the antithesis of fundamentalism. I wonder if Orthodoxy isn’t the ultimate—and original—fundamentalism. (I say that in full knowledge that the term fundamentalism derived from the series of pamphlets published between 1910 and 1915, so my use of the term here is in that sense anachronistic.)

We’ve all seen the spiritual migrations of many evangelical adolescents. The come out of fundamentalism and then migrate to the Episcopal Church. A few then continue to Roman Catholicism and then, ever fewer, to Orthodoxy. They give different reasons for their journeys: appreciation for history, love of aesthetics, a connection to something deeper and more durable than the latest praise song.

But I wonder whether, for some, something else isn’t at work as well: the search for a weightier, more venerable form of fundamentalism. The clue here lies in a single parenthetical statement in Mr. Ford’s essay, where he stipulates that marriage is “understood as between one man and one woman.” I’ve had enough conversations with Orthodox theologians to know that this statement is treated as more than parenthetical.

Fair enough; this has been the understanding in Christianity throughout most of church history. But when does a commitment to tradition shackle the faith to irrelevancy? The same might be said about other issues as well, including women’s leadership. Let’s remember that Jesus said little or nothing about homosexuality (or abortion, for that matter), although he said a good bit more about divorce—which Orthodoxy allows, though only one remarriage.

The beauty of Orthodoxy lies in its appreciation for the past. But Jesus also told his followers to look to the future, toward a fuller embrace of the gospel—the good news—and an appropriation of the kingdom of God, one that includes all of God’s children.


1 reply
  1. David C. Ford
    David C. Ford says:

    Ford, on fundamentalism, and on male/female symbolics and women in ministry

    Dear Randall,

    Thank you very much for your response to my post, with your description of your many contacts with Orthodoxy over the years. I’m glad to hear that Bishop David gave you such a warm welcome and such encouragement for your filming project. In the 1990s, he was one of my students at St. Tikhon’s Seminary; later he taught here for a while as an adjunct, before eventually becoming Bishop of Alaska, so I knew him very well. As we say, may his memory be eternal!

    One of the highlights of my life was my one and only trip to Alaska, sponsored by Bishop David, including giving the graduation speech, at his invitation, at St. Herman’s Seminary on Kodiak Island, in 2016, and the next weekend leading a retreat, along with my wife Dr. Mary Ford, to all the priest-wives in Alaska on the theme of marriage, which was held in the Orthodox Cathedral in Anchorage.

    It’s interesting to read your thoughts on Orthodoxy as being the original “fundamentalism.” Of course that’s a loaded and mostly pejorative term in our day, suggesting religious narrow-mindedness, backwardness, fire-and-brimstone preaching, and right-wing political fanaticism. The arch-conservative Protestant churches that are usually branded as “fundamentalist” have, I think, brought some of this negative reaction upon themselves, at least in part, I would suggest, by what appears to be their customary emphasis on the wrath of God, and His arbitrariness, as they typically hold to the doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election. In this sense, Orthodoxy is the opposite of Protestant fundamentalism, for total depravity and unconditional election, and the other three points of five-point Calvinism, are strongly rejected by the Orthodox.

    But there is indeed a positive understanding of fundamentalism, with its strong understanding that there is Absolute Truth, and that Christ has revealed not only Himself as Absolute Truth Incarnate (John 14:6), but also many aspects of belief in Him that are indeed non-negotiable. The Orthodox Church understands herself to have articulated and preserved these non-negotiable truths ever since the beginning, and with the creedal formulations of the Ecumenical Councils simply being further amplifications and clarifications of the same truths – amplifications and clarifications that were deemed necessary by the Church in the face of
    various wrong doctrinal understandings cropping up among heretical groups here and there through the centuries.

    As Jesus said, “those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). So in this good sense, I suppose Orthodoxy could be called the original fundamentalism, but without the narrow-mindedness, sectarianism, and “us-vs.-them” mentality that seem to characterize typical Protestant Fundamentalism, for Orthodoxy rejoices to affirm glimmers of truth wherever they are found – in the spirit of Phil. 4:8.

    I also think we would detect in Protestant Fundamentalism a certain effort to identify what’s the bare minimum of doctrines necessary to believe, and maybe also the bare minimum of practices necessary to do, for one to be saved. Orthodoxy, with her much more dynamic understanding of salvation as a process, affirms the importance of all the doctrines of the Faith, and all the possible practices that can enrich our spiritual life – for they all contribute to our being saved. Though of course, in the end, our salvation ultimately depends upon our intent to be saved, as reflected in our beliefs and actions, and our Lord’s infinite desire to save us!

    You also mentioned, though very briefly, the issues of sexual purity and women’s ministry. You might be interested in my remarks about traditional sexual morality that I’ve given in response to Terry (representing Pentecostalism) in this Respectful Conversation. These comments, I think, address the concern you expressed that maintaining traditional standards of sexual morality might result in “irrelevancy.”

    Concerning women in ministry, in the Orthodox Church, certainly in North America, women are encouraged to participate as much as they wish to in every aspect of Church life – except for ordained ministry. To offer just a few thoughts on why this is, I would emphasize that symbolics are tremendously important in Orthodoxy (and I would say for human nature in general, for every word we ever use is a symbol, or icon, of a greater reality). It’s clear you already know this well about Orthodoxy, since you said in your response, about the Divine Liturgy, “each gesture and utterance suffused with significance, sometimes several layers of meaning.”

    The male/female binary, with all its attendant symbolic significance, has been deeply embedded in the human psyche ever since Adam and Eve, in every culture on the earth, all the way until a few years ago among some people in wealthy Western societies. Furthermore, hearkening to the account in Genesis, the Orthodox would emphasize that God created Eve to be a complementary helper for Adam, especially in the realm of conception, childbearing, and child-nurturing; God did not create another man for Adam just to be a friend and companion. The Orthodox understanding is that man and woman share completely the same human nature, and in being “made in the image and likeness of God.” But the very obvious physical differences between the two sexes make it evident that we’re not both made for identical functions; identity of nature does not imply identity of function.

    Certainly there have been variations through history and from culture to culture in understanding all the ramifications of the deep physical and emotional differences between the two sexes – and even how our differing brains work – including what the typical functions of each sex should be. But with all due respect to the transgender community, and to all those now trying to deny the reality of the male/female binary, it’s certain, in the Orthodox understanding of human sexuality, that only biological males can be impregnators, and hence become fathers; and only biological women can be impregnated, and hence become mothers. And we know through modern scientific study that every cell in the human body, in its DNA, identifies the sex of that body – either male or female.

    In the Orthodox understanding, God the Father brings into being and then provides His protective providential care over all creatures – especially humans, who all are intended to respond to the Father’s initiative/overtures with welcoming acceptance and gratitude. Hence, in the Orthodox tradition, the soul, whether of a man or a woman, is held to be, in a sense, feminine.

    Further symbolics are revealed in the Gospels regarding Jesus, the Son of God the Father, Who several times refers to Himself as the Bridegroom, reflecting His real manhood. The Church, then, as His Bride, is also considered to be feminine, in a real sense. By extension, each parish, as an integral part of His Church, is His bride. And since every priest continues and participates in Christ’s own priesthood, serving as a kind of representation of Christ Himself Who is male, every priest must be a male, who then serves not only as a symbol, or icon, of Christ the Great High Priest, but also as the father of his flock.

    In light of the blurring of the differences of the sexes in modern times – and now recently with a certain questioning of and blurring of even the bedrock male/female binary – the Orthodox would see the male priesthood as more important than ever before in proclaiming, in itself, the sacred, God-given uniqueness and specialness of each of the two, and only two, sexes.

    Thanks again for your response to my essay, Randall. I hope my comments here will be helpful.

    Yours, in Christ,


    P.S. Here’s an example of symbolics from St. John Chrysostom (from his Second Homily on Eutropius), describing the love Christ has for His Bride, the Church:

    “For He espoused her as a wife, He loves (philei) her as a daughter, He provides for her as a handmaid, He guards her as a virgin, He encloses her like a garden, He attends to her as His own member. As a head He provides for her; as a root He causes her to grow; as a shepherd He feeds her; as a bridegroom He weds her; as a propitiation He pardons her; as a sheep He is sacrificed; as bridegroom He preserves her in beauty; as a husband He provides for her welfare.”


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