Orthodoxy: An Immersion in Sacred Belief and Practice

I so appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this e-conversation. More than twenty years of extended interfaith dialogue with scholars and church leaders from Evangelicalism, the Church of the Nazarene, and Community of Christ (formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) have been transformative for me—both mind-expanding and spiritually invigorating. I know now, more than ever before, how very crucial it is to understand and to be understood.

One of our senior Church leaders offered the following Latter-day Saint perspective on sacraments: “A sacrament could be any one of a number of gestures or acts or ordinances that unite us with God and his limitless powers. We are imperfect and mortal; he is perfect and immortal. But from time to time—indeed, as often as is possible and appropriate—we find ways and go to places and create circumstances where we can unite symbolically with him and, in so doing, gain access to his power.”[1]

While not totally uninformed about Orthodoxy before reading Dr. David Ford’s essay, I marveled and was moved by the depth and breadth of sacramentalism within the Orthodox faith. So many facets of the Orthodox life seem to point one toward divinity and focus the mind and heart on the sacred. This is crucial Christian conduct in a day like ours, when religion and religious discourse are being pushed to the margins of our ever more secular society. Orthodoxy appears to me, at least, to engage the human senses—sight, smell, touch, hearing—in ways that involve the whole person in daily, regular, and consistent worshipful practices and habits.

I am impressed and fascinated by the antiquity of this faith. That is especially the case with one like myself who belongs to a religious movement that came into being in the Restorationism or Christian Primitivism of the early nineteenth century. On the other hand, Latter-day Saints do believe we are a part of a restoration of first century Christianity. Because of that, I have in recent decades grown to love and appreciate the Early Church Fathers, those noble souls who lived much, much closer in time to our Savior and his ordained Apostle than do we. I find many of their teachings to be not only stimulating but also deeply inspiring.

Reading and reflecting on the “resources for spiritual growth,” some of which are enumerated in the fifth paragraph of Professor Ford’s essay, was mind-boggling: daily scripture study, the Church’s centuries-long interpretation of scripture, ancient prescribed prayers, a rich liturgy, psalms, devotional hymns, the Eucharist, confession, holy days, writings of Church Fathers, veneration of the Saints, the creedal formulations, Icons, the Cross, Patron Saints and Guardian Angels. Wow! It’s obvious that no member of the Orthodox faith will ever be lacking in things to do when she or he feels the need to draw closer to God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.

I came away with a few questions that I would like to ask—not as criticism but for clarification. First, could the grand and vast sacramentalism of Orthodoxy be overwhelming for an investigator of the faith, one who is contemplating life as an Orthodox Christian? Could the massive list of “resources” frighten persons with no religious background, or perhaps those who had spent much of their life as conservative Protestants, perhaps Evangelicals, for whom many of the Orthodox practices could appear to be a staggering list of “works” that fly in the face of the grace of God? If a man or woman of the Orthodox faith were asked whether the seeming complexity of Orthodoxy would in any way complicate the “simplicity of Christ” mentioned by the Apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 11:3), what would be a reasonable response?

I ask this question for somewhat selfish reasons. As a person who was raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and then as a 21-year old moved to the west, I have watched my own Church through the last 6-7 decades with much interest. It seems almost inevitable that a religious organization that grows considerably in numbers and in influence will eventually have to wrestle with the problem of what I call institutionalization. Namely, how do you continue to grow in numbers of people, meetinghouses, church publications, handbooks, guidelines, procedures, policies, etc. without suffering what Max Weber described as the almost inevitable “routinization of charisma”? As Latter-day Saints, for example, how do we ensure continuity in what we do and orthodoxy in terms of what we believe and teach, and at the same time enjoy the kind of spiritual spontaneity that characterized the meetings and the members in the days of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young? To what extent would the Orthodox Church face similar challenges?

I was especially interested in Dr. Ford’s reference in the 8th paragraph to how important the “communion of the saints” mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed (or the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12:1) is within Orthodoxy. I love that expression “vibrant communion/fellowship with His Saints—the living, the departed, and in a very special way, the glorified.”  It’s pretty important to people of my denomination, as well. Mention is made of prayers made to the Saints, presumably for divine assistance, for guidance, or protection. Is there, within Orthodoxy, any sense in which those on earth may help or assist or bless those who have passed on? I ask that in light of the reference in Hebrews 11:39-40: “All these won God’s approval because of their faith; and yet they did not receive what was promised, because, with us in mind, God had made a better plan, that only with us should they reach perfection” (Revised English Bible; emphasis added).

Mention was made in paragraph 6 of the Orthodox Church’s high standards for sexual purity, namely, “total abstinence for the monastics, and total faithfulness to one’s spouse for the married (with marriage understood between one man and one woman, mirroring Christ the Bridegroom’s love for His Bride, the Church).” I wondered to what extent the Orthodox Church is taking hits from the media or criticism from individuals or groups insisting on the propriety of same-gender marriage. The Latter-day Saints are certainly being attacked for our position, which is basically the same (although we have no monastics).

One of the facets of the Orthodox faith with which I am particularly interested is theosis or deification. I wish Dr. Ford had been able to engage this matter and to what extent it is discussed and taught by the rank-in-file of the Church, as well as the scholars. It would be worthwhile to learn how the sacraments and practices can assist individuals to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Finally, Professor Ford’s mention in paragraph 15 of the synergistic relationship between the individual and our Lord Jesus Christ (as taught in Philippians) in the quest for salvation and glorification is a teaching that simply makes good sense. It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s words: “Christians have often disputed as to whether what leads the Christian home is good actions, or faith in Christ. . . . It does seem to me like asking which blade in a pair of scissors is most necessary. . . .You see, we are trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and man does when God and man are working together.”[2]

I express appreciation for Dr. David Ford’s excellent paper. It was both informative and deeply inspirational. I look forward on my own in learning much more about my brothers and sisters of the Orthodox faith.

[1] Jeffrey R. Holland, On Earth as It Is in Heaven (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 193-94.

[2] Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 131-32; Book 3, Chapter 12.