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.”
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.”
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.
 Jeffrey R. Holland, On Earth as It Is in Heaven (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 193-94.
 Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 131-32; Book 3, Chapter 12.
Ford, on the sacramental world-view, institutionalism, prayer for the departed, and deification
Thank you very much for your enthusiastic response to my essay! It’s a great joy to be able to affirm together what we have in common as followers of Jesus!
You brought up a concern about whether all the resources in Orthodoxy for spiritual growth, all reflecting the “vast” and deep sacramentalism of Orthodoxy, might be off-putting to those first encountering Orthodoxy. I think if the underlying foundation, the sacramental world-view, is explained first, then all the various specific expressions of that world-view will make more sense. I know in my own spiritual journey (having been raised in the Presbyterian Church), it was first hearing about the sacramental world-view that was the turning point that led me towards Orthodoxy.
That world-view, as you know, is based/founded in the firm conviction that all of Creation is profoundly good, as our Lord Himself repeatedly proclaimed as recorded in Genesis 1. It all bears the stamp, so to speak, of its Creator – just as any magnificent work of art reflects the mind and character of the artist. I love how Fr. Schmemann, in his classic book For the Life of the World, talks about the inherent “natural sacramentality” of Creation – a certain innate holiness embedded in it. So in the Church’s Sacraments (or Mysteries, as we call them in Orthodoxy), we can say that the natural sacredness of the sacramental elements – water, oil, bread, wine – is heightened and intensified through the prayers of the Church, making them even more powerful bearers of divine grace.
Certainly there is always the possibility that people can turn the Sacraments, and all the many “means of grace,” into ends in themselves – making them “routinized,” as you suggest. Good preaching will be frequently reminding the faithful that it’s not how often we make use of these means of grace that’s important, but whether we keep our eyes fixed on Christ as we employ these means to draw closer to Him. I address this concern also in my response to Christopher (representing Pietism). But the very power embedded in these means of grace also mitigates against such an expression of “institutionalism.”
Concerning whether the faithful on earth can in any way benefit those who have departed from this life, I address this issue in my first publication, a booklet in the Conciliar Press series called Prayer and the Departed Saints. We do pray often for the departed for many reasons – perhaps first of all, to maintain our contact with them, to keep our love kindled for them, in a very meaningful way, even though we’ll probably never know exactly how our prayers for them may be helping them.
We Orthodox do understand that after the soul leaves the body, there is a certain period in which the soul is purified from the wounds of sin – yet not in a particular place, and not as punishment for sins absolved but not sufficiently atoned for, as Roman Catholicism holds. This time of purification reflects our understanding that spiritual growth in the heavenly realm is endless – as we created ones continually cleave closer and closer to God, the Uncreated One, and become more and more purified in the process. The Orthodox also know, drawing upon the spiritual experience of millions of believers through the centuries, that asking the departed, especially the canonized Saints, for their prayers is tremendously beneficial – for us, as we find their prayers for us being answered; and for them as well, as they delight in our inviting them to express their love for us and share it with us.
You also asked, Robert, about why I didn’t say more about deification/theosis, or even use either of these terms. I certainly could have, but I guess I felt I couldn’t explain it sufficiently within the space limitations of the essay. But indeed, becoming like Christ – and even more than that, sharing in His own Divine Energies – is what we call becoming “deified,” as bold as that term is! Of course it does not mean that we ever lose our createdness, even as we participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) through God’s constant, gracious sharing of His Uncreated Energies with those who seek to be knit with Him. So we don’t become “gods” in any way parallel to how the Uncreated Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are each God (this may be a point of difference with the typical Latter Day Saints’ understanding).
But the Orthodox would gladly affirm that the Latter Day Saints have indeed intuited something very powerful in their emphasis on some form of deification as being the goal of the Christian life, both now and forever, even if our two traditions differ in our understanding of what deification is in all its details.
This leads me to remark that from the Orthodox point of view, many of the schisms that have occurred throughout the history of Christianity occurred because the new group was seeking to reaffirm and reemphasize some particular aspect of Christian teaching and/or practice that they believed had been lost, or at least minimized, by the Christianity that they were familiar with. Two of my favorite examples of this are the original emphasis of the Disciples of Christ on acapella singing and on celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday, and the Latter Day Saints affirming at least some form of deification as the goal of the Christian life. The Orthodox would then go on to suggest that all the aspects of the Faith that the schismatic groups reclaimed were always preserved intact within Orthodoxy.
And concerning issues of sexual purity and abortion, we Orthodox rejoice that we have allies among the Latter Day Saints – though, of course, we can never endorse polygamy, since, for one thing, Christ only has one Bride, His Holy Church; and we believe that every marriage is intended to be an icon of His undying, sacrificial love for His Church (cf. Eph. 5:18-33). (You might be interested in what I said to Terry [representing Pentecostalism] on the topic of sexual purity.)
Thank you again, Robert, for your response to my essay. I hope my remarks here will be helpful.
Yours, in Christ,
Thank you, David, for your thoughtful response to my response. You may be interested in knowing that in 2000 a group of six Latter-day Saint scholars and six Evangelical scholars began what came to be known as the Mormon-Evangelical dialogue. We met twice each year, prepared to engage with what my counterpart, Richard Mouw, has called “convicted civility.” We will formally bring our dialogue to an end in Spring 2022. It has been a magnificent journey, one that has been for me life-changing and humbling.
I bring this up only to mention in passing how often our Evangelical brothers and sisters would remark: “You folks really need to engage with scholars from Eastern Orthodoxy.” In fact, one of our 2-3 day dialogues dealt with deification. We read some LDS material on the topic and a book by Veli-Matti Karkkainen from Fuller Seminary entitled One with God: Salvation as Deification and Justification (2004). Veli-Matti led our discussion. Both groups commented several times throughout our conversation that “we definitely need to know the Early Church Fathers better than we do.”
I suppose more than anything I am touched and inspired by the Orthodox concept of mystery, including the mystery of God and the Godhead (Trinity). Mystery is not a word that is bantered about much within “Mormonism.” We’re a pretty practical bunch, but I believe we would be well served by acknowledging that there are many things, particularly about the Almighty that we as limited mortals simply are unable to comprehend
Once again, thank you for opening a window through which much that is beautiful and praiseworthy in your faith has come through to me.