Context Matters: A Response to Orthodoxy

I have the toughest job of all the reviewers, I fretted as I read David Ford’s posting on the Orthodox tradition.   True, we all share the daunting task of speaking for the people in our respective Christian traditions – in my case, the world’s estimated 279,000,000 Pentecostals, a notoriously fractious assemblage of people. (If we add charismatics, the number will include a quarter of the globe’s Christians, a combination some academics refer to as “renewalist Christians.”)  This burden of representation is one we all face as commentators, but I harbored another fear as well.  Orthodox and Pentecostal?   Are there any Christians so different in provenance, in practice, in theology?!  But as I read Prof. Ford’s posting, familiar terms leapt from the page:  glory, saints, holiness, miracles, and joy   Were these terms a path inside a Christian tradition that I probably know least, in both academic and personal senses?

Those terms led me directly into Ford’s discussion of Orthodox liturgy.  I deeply appreciate Ford’s emphasis on practice as well as theology, specifically how Orthodox liturgy embodies and furthers the quest to follow Jesus.  None of the worship that takes place in Orthodox settings would be familiar to Pentecostal folks, except, of course, for the convert who steps from one tradition into another. (Anecdotal evidence suggest that conversion usually happens, at least in U.S. contexts, from Pentecostal to Orthodox.)   Nothing would seem so strange to most Pentecostals than Orthodox forms of worship – antiphonal chants, incense, vestments, icons, and a very formal Eucharist.  The flip side almost certainly would be the case. Orthodox Christians might be puzzled by a worship tradition where contemporary praise music calls us to follow Jesus – no, to experience Jesus – through speaking, singing, and dancing in the Spirit. The embodied forms of worship are completely different, obviously, but I began to wonder if the goal of worship is similar within each tradition. Orthodox worship exists to guide people along toward intimacy with Christ and the Holy Spirit. So does Pentecostal worship, although in ways that differ wildly in style but perhaps not, after all, in substance?

Which brings me to sanctification. This is not the place to rehearse the many variations on the theology and experience of sanctification within Pentecostal traditions (and I wonder, within Orthodox traditions as well?)  But Dr. Ford’s words – glory, saints, holiness, miracles, and joy – that initially captured my attention got me wondering about the ways and means of sanctification in Pentecostal and Orthodox settings.  In both traditions, sanctification is one of the goals of Christian life. Being sanctified means that we walk in the way of Jesus, and that when we do, we become partakers of Jesus’ glory, the glory of God (II Peter 1:3-5).  For both Pentecostals and the Orthodox, this happens in private devotions but especially in corporate worship.  For both traditions but in very different ways, worship and praise are central to following Jesus, enveloping us in divine glory, protection, and holiness that we call sanctification.

This process of “making holy” requires, as Dr. Ford tells us, attention to purity.  This language of purity would sit well with most Pentecostals, descended as many of us are from Methodism and Holiness movements.  But this purity is never detached from the realities of human life and love.  And power. Whose purity are we talking about?  Who defines what it means to be pure?  Prof. Ford offers a controversial ethical claim, if only parenthetically, when he links purity and sexuality: “. . . (with marriage understood as between one man and one woman).”  Most Pentecostals would agree.  But . . . perhaps one person’s purity is another’s abjection, as my Pentecostal bishop, a lesbian woman, often reminds me.  Does same-gender love, even when it leads to marriage, inhibit the call to follow Jesus?  Make that claim about marriage to members of Axios, a fellowship of LGBTQ Orthodox Christians, and I doubt if they would agree.

The phrase “holy envy” is credited to the late Krister Stendahl, Harvard Divinity professor of New Testament and Bishop in the Church of Sweden, who coined the term to express the respect and admiration one has for another’s faith tradition.  I assume one aim of this project is to stir up holy envy, while also highlighting areas of disagreement or puzzlement.  The holy envy I harbor toward Orthodox Christians is the antiquity of their traditions, and the way in which Orthodoxy’s deep roots influence its way of living in Christian time.

Within Orthodoxy, the anchorage of the past makes the church a holy and continuing vessel of wisdom and practice.  Orthodoxy expresses this in both teaching and worship, presenting itself as the ekklesia that carries the tradition forward with unquestionable authority.  Part of that tradition involves an annual circular calendar commemorating incidents in the life of Jesus and in the lives of the saints who followed him in the spirit of holiness. Time looks very different to most Pentecostals.  For over a century many Pentecostal preachers have insisted  that we live at the end of time, awaiting the imminent return of Jesus.  This view too often leaves Pentecostals suspended between the apostolic age as recorded in the Book of Acts and our contemporary end-of-days, ignoring most of the history in-between as little more than a parenthesis.  There are thousands of variations on this Pentecostal way of telling time, but the tendency persists.  In short, my holy envy focuses on the more expansive Orthodox way of telling time. The Orthodox understanding stitches together generations in a much longer and slower unfolding of salvation, a salvation prefigured in a liturgical tradition that evokes what Ford rightly calls “awe and majesty.”

What’s the shadow side to this holy envy, my inner Protestant wonders?  Orthodoxy insists that the church under the direction of its bishops are the custodians of the practices and meanings of following Jesus.  Sure, there are some Pentecostal networks that hold similar understandings of apostolic succession and the episcopacy but truthfully, my Protestant mind and heart bridle at this kind of conservatorship, trapped as I am in my own modernism and its emphasis on individual conscience.  Who are the custodians of Christ’s holiness?  And who are the saints?  Many Pentecostals might answer:   the saints participate here and now in God’s holiness, with the guidance of their communities, to be sure, but in ways that startle (or annoy) the gatekeepers of tradition.  Put another way, the Holy Spirit is not mediated by the church nor by its bishops:  the Holy Ghost falls of its own accord, lured by collective singing, praise, and prayer.  At least that’s one Pentecostal’s opinion.

Finally – and this observation has more to do with our collective project than with Dr. Ford’s comments.   Setting this up as a conversation between Christian traditions has the effect of collapsing differences within a specific tradition.  After all, one tradition’s path to following Jesus is another’s road to perdition, a reality that is played out not just between traditions but even within the same tradition.

When reading Dr. Ford’s gracious and insightful response to an almost impossible assignment  – surveying a complex set of beliefs and practices of great antiquity and geographical reach – I kept wondering about the tensions and disagreements within the tradition.  Where are the fractures within Orthodoxy, both historical and contemporary, and what do those divisions have to tell us about following Jesus?  Who are the dissenters and the marginalized within the tradition? What makes them so?  Can we speak of a developing “American Orthodoxy” that eschews the ethnic and national divisions and the allegiances with imperial powers that have plagued Orthodox traditions for centuries?  If so, what does such a modern Orthodoxy teach about following Jesus?  Does the experience of Orthodox Americans shape their understanding and practice, sometimes in tension with the tradition they’ve inherited?  What about African Americans in the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black?   How does the experience of being black in America shape their following Jesus in ways that are different from, say, a Russian peasant under the czar, or the Czar himself, or from the saints of old?  What I’m trying to say is that context matters deeply, no matter the antiquity or reach of one’s tradition.  The question that haunts me as this project kicks off is this: is it possible to think about these traditions less as abstractions outside of the lifeworld, and more as protean faith movements that are shaped not only by divine forces but also by a welter of material realities and cultural assumptions. In other words, context matters. For all of us.