On a Tradition Brimming with Confidence, Spiritual Rootage, and Personal Moral Striving

As a Baptist, I find that David Ford’s description of the Orthodox path of following Jesus takes me into largely unfamiliar territory. But that unfamiliarity is welcome. I am determined to learn from it, even as I find myself resisting certain aspects of it. I certainly see major potential correctives here for common patterns in Baptist life.

Professor Ford’s description of the Orthodox tradition rings with high confidence as to its divine inspiration, divine confirmation, historical continuity, and moral productivity. In a time of fading Christian self-confidence, with many notable examples of such among Baptists, I find this Orthodox confidence highly inspiring.

I do wonder whether that confidence, reinforced by centuries of tradition and belief in tradition’s divine inspiration, leaves the Orthodox sufficiently open to the occasional historical reconsideration. I believe in semper reformanda — the church always reforming. I would hope to see Baptists grow in confidence in our version of Christian tradition without losing the ability to change our minds sometimes.

It was interesting to see that Dr. Ford’s description of how the Orthodox follow Jesus was not narrowly confined to the moral arena. In essence, we were treated to a lovely description of an entire way of life, including public worship, home worship, iconography, spiritual direction, prayer, and more. This offers a great reminder that if (as is true, I think) many of us Baptists understand “following Jesus” to be primarily living in a certain morally serious way in the world, that way requires the deepest spiritual sourcing, which is thinning out in many parts of Baptist life. No roots, no fruits. The Orthodox understand this, and provide for it.

I was surprised at the morally perfectionistic notes in Professor Ford’s description of the Orthodox path. The goal, he says, is to move toward a sin-free life, with ever greater faithfulness, fervency, holiness, fruitfulness, moral purity, trust in God, commandment-keeping, surrender of will, virtue, and self-sacrificing service. I found none of the (typically Protestant, and quite common among Baptists) emphasis on the limits of Christian moral capacity and the need to live primarily in gratitude for divine forgiveness — rather than focusing on effortful moral striving.

The problems with focusing on effortful moral striving can include what has been called scrupulosity, an excessively active and mordant conscience and, on the flip side, a tendency toward spiritual pride for those who think they are actually making moral progress.

But the problem with focusing mainly on Christian moral limits and the need for forgiveness can be a relaxing of moral effort and adoption of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer unforgettably and accurately called “cheap grace.” The Baptist world that I know seems much more vulnerable to cheap grace than to scrupulosity.

Finally, I admit to being distressed to see no social-ethical or social-justice dimension in Dr. Ford’s essay other than a welcome mention of living in harmony with Nature and celebrating the goodness of God’s creation. (Also: a traditional posture on marriage.) As a Baptist Christian social ethicist, I cannot conceive of “following Jesus” apart from substantial attention to social justice, social ethics, and social change. On the other hand, sometimes all that some of us Baptists seem to understand of discipleship these days is a social change agenda, either conservative or liberal.

I am deeply grateful for this occasion to encounter Eastern Orthodox thought, and to Dr. Ford for getting our conversation started with such a lovely, lyrical first essay.