Tuesday, June 22, 2010


I had grown up Presbyterian, and my denomination placed a strong emphasis on the belief that God had power over absolutely everything. We were contrasted with, say, the Baptists, who emphasized our free will to choose to trust in God or not. The problem with the Presbyterians, the Baptists would say, is that they don't treat humans as beings who are capable of meaningful actions. The Presbyterians would criticize the Baptists for undermining the sovereignty of God. When I was discovering Orthodoxy, I wanted to learn the Orthodox stance on free will versus God's sovereignty. I found it very difficult to accept the Orthodox church's teaching on how free people are, but when I did, it didn't feel like I was rejecting belief in God's sovereignty at all. Not only that, but I didn't even understand why there was a conflict about the matter in the first place. It just seemed like the Baptists had gotten a little confused in one direction, and the Presbyterians had gotten a little confused in the other, and they went back and forth, arguing, and drifting apart.

Orthodoxy felt like the opposite of wild mood swings. I was used to either feeling smug when I did right, or guilty when I did wrong, but I was being taught in the Orthodox church to be more concerned with finding life than with judging myself one way or another. Whenever things get too busy for me and I have papers all over my desk, I gather them up in a pile. I pick the top paper off the pile and do what I need to with it: file it, note a to-do, throw it away, whatever. Then I pick up the next paper and deal with it. The feeling of sensibility that I get from doing that with paper, I felt that way, that simple single-mindedness, about Orthodox thought. Orthodoxy felt unreactionary to me.

Even before investigating Orthodoxy, I had felt despair about whether we could know right doctrine confidently. I was thinking of things like whether to baptize babies and how to get saved and what the ground rules are for church government; if God thought these things were important, why didn't he have the Bible written more clearly? I had always supposed that Christian truth was somewhere in a circle drawn around the Bible. I started asking, though, "Why would God leave only the Bible as authority if it can't be made sense of consistently?" and wondering why I hadn't asked that before.

In my discussions with Orthodox Christians, I was encouraged to ask that question. For God to be anything other than cruel, he would have to make doctrine, at least, the very important bits, clear to the church. Not only that, but it would have to be the same truth, for Christians in India and Egypt and Ireland and Bolivia now and in the Middle Ages and during the Roman Empire and through the Industrial Revolution. To me, that meant that Christianity had to look something like the Orthodox or the Catholic church, something like what the whole church looked in the first millennium, before the split.

There was a four-hundred-year-old oak tree in the back yard of my house I grew up in. When I was building forts or gathering acorns or spying, I felt safe near that tree, because it was big and old.

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