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.