Dialogue as Healing: with a Brief View of the Orthodox Sacrament of Confession

It was amazing that I had fit in for as long as I did. Looking back, I can’t believe I spent nearly 20 years in a Christian movement that was almost wholly cut off from dialogue with anyone on the outside. For someone like me, extreme in his tenacity for questioning everything, it is a wonder that I remained in it for so many years.

Not that the years were without incident. I was the worship director of a church whose senior pastor enforced a mandatory tithe on all the church’s leadership. When I raised the question as to what New Testament example we were following with such a requirement I was shown the door. Not exactly a robust environment for open dialogue.

But, as luck would have it, this movement introduced me to a private Christian university with a highly diverse faculty, and where dialogue was elevated to the status of virtue. My professors were Baptist, Catholic, Calvinist, Lutheran and Pentecostal, among others. The discussions were spirited! This was an environment where no one ever stood up in the middle of a discussion and stomped out of the room, damaged ego in hand, for not receiving lavished applause for their private religious perspectives. It was during this period I discovered my home in the Eastern Orthodox Church, in part because of the liberty to have honest dialogue, and in part from the vigorous encouragement to dig (as deep as one dared) into the history of the Church—a life changing prospect for someone like me who had never been exposed to the heart and soul of historic Christianity.

Having emerged from graduate school a freshly pressed Orthodox Christian, I attempted to return to the lifelong discussions I once held with various old church friends. I was shaken to find how many of them were closed off to the kind of open dialogues I had become accustomed to. Granted there is a fairly large gap between the Orthodox Church and the movement I was once involved with, in terms of doctrine and practice, but there seemed to be in some them a deep, concentrated effort to remain cut off from external influences, i.e. any influence that did not originate in their tightly guarded pool of ideas (ideas germane to their pre-selected desires for what they “wanted” Christianity to be). The reactions to these dialogues were varied ranging from simple refusal to involve themselves, to uncontrolled frustration and anger. Though shaken, I was fascinated: what is it that makes some people detest and fear such encounters while others not only enjoy but actively seek them?

As someone who loves both theology and human psychology this phenomenon goes well beyond interesting—it’s nearly hypnotic. I had spent untold hours absorbed with trying to understand why some people guard their pet beliefs from being challenged with such fever so as to destroy not only their relationships but often their very selves in the process. Understanding the passion for truth is not mysterious, rather, it is the desire to “save face” emotionally and intellectually at such a high cost that had me baffled.

But there is a simple answer: there exists a deep insecurity in the integrity of one’s religious foundations when one’s beliefs were initially formulated as a quick fix for their internal/emotional pain, or formulated in a reactionary manner “against” someone or something. Related to the phenomenon of “post-decision bias,” these beliefs become self-reinforcing when their foundations are later significantly challenged. One often finds that this defense mechanism is experienced inwardly by some as an episode of survival—literal physical survival; as if dialoguing certain issues brings the person face-to-face again with the same source of pain which had never been properly dealt with.

Hence, the tendency for some to become easily angered or withdrawn in religious discussions seems to me a sign of inner turmoil, an indicator of something much deeper, perhaps even a form of existential despair trying to escape its torment. On this point I believe that the Orthodox Christian view of human nature has a keen insight, and it is contained in our sacrament of confession.

From an Orthodox perspective dialogue is healing; granted that the dialogue is honest and real and not the usual game of ‘intellectual dodgeball.’ One of the hallmarks of Orthodox spirituality is its emphasis on the healing of the whole person, soul and body. We believe that salvation is a matter of real healing from our primordial fall, healing from our “sickness” of alienation from Life itself—the Holy Trinity—and not merely an assurance of escaping a fiery hell in the next life. In short, salvation is a journey that starts in the here and now and requires the involvement of the whole person in order to be truly realized. Thus, our whole being is called to enter into the living reality of “theosis,” i.e. to become partakers of the divine nature (2Peter 1:4). Scripture says that “if we confess our sins, He (God) is faithful to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1John 1:9). There is something in our nature that necessitates “confession” of our spiritual illness for true inward healing to come.

For the Orthodox, the confession—the dialogue with God and man—is made by the believer, in tandem with his or her priest, before God. But the confession is not made in a private booth where there is no visual or physical contact between believer and priest, as it is often practiced in western traditions, but rather made in the sanctuary of the church before the icon of Christ. It is during this time that the believer confronts his or her own struggles with sin, with the priest standing in as a witness and spiritual guide (hence the affectionate title of “father” given to priests) to aid the believer with prayer, advise and sacred anointing. This contact allows the believer to invite the true healing and empowerment of God into their life. It is also a chance for the priest to help the believer to correct any false religious concepts which may be contributing to their sickness.

The sacrament of confession is only one avenue of grace provided to the Orthodox Christian, but it is a highly significant example of the healing qualities of healthy and honest human dialogue in general. Christ is the Great Physician and His sacrifice is a cleansing sacrifice, healing both body (1John 1:7) and soul (Hebrews 9:11-15). The gift of the Holy Spirit is given for this purpose of true healing and the healing is accomplished through the work of Christ’s Church. Even a brief tour through Scripture will reveal that the Holy Spirit uses people to heal people. From the Orthodox perspective, this is why it is not possible for an individual to find true healing while attempting to remain an island. True healing necessitates communion with God, and communion with God necessitates communion with Christ’s Body—the Church.

Much more could be said on this issue of dialogue within the Orthodox Christian milieu of healing. Many fine works have been written on the subject and it is my hope that this brief introduction inspires further inquiry. Thanks for reading!

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8 thoughts on “Dialogue as Healing: with a Brief View of the Orthodox Sacrament of Confession

  1. Another exemplary collection of observations. Having spent about the same amount of time in the same church, I can attest to your assessment, and I also find fascinating the unwillingness of so many to engage in any discussion that varies from the trite dogma that they are spoon fed every Sunday. I think you have hit on the primary reasons, especially the “deep insecurity of one’s religious foundations.” In retrospect, it seems that insecurity is overwhelmingly the element that binds most of those congregants to that ministry, though I’m not so sure it is insecurity in religious foundations directly. I think it is simple insecurity in general. Most of the people I know from that place will do anything for approval, a simple pat on the back. They will serve ridiculous hours, tithe and give more than they have, not to please God as much as to simply be told, “You’re wonderful,” and know that they will not be asked to leave. That insecurity is what prevents them from ever questioning anything. They know that if they challenge anything, as you did, they will be shown the door. Your journey away from there was not along a road I would have expected, but I rejoice that you’ve done it. I think it is nothing less than deliverance.

    I completely concur with your view of the importance of dialogue. One of my favorite biblical passages of late is Malachi 3:16. After three chapters of God telling Israel that they are under a variety of curses, it says that those who feared the Lord talked to each other, and when they talked to each other, God heard and listened and brought them healing. This dialogue is vitally important for a lot more than just intellectual stimulation. There is genuine life that flows through it.

  2. Thanks, Don.

    I can’t wait to review Malachi 3. At the moment I only have a Greek version of the NT with me. Go figure, the time when I want to break open the prophets and I’m without an OT. Anyway, its always good to dialogue with fellow de-converted LWBC folks like yourself who can relate. Those were weird times my friend, weird times.

  3. Eric, what a job! Oddly enough, when we discussed an entry on the subject of dialogue I did not foresee the possibility of a reflection on interior dialogue. When it comes to religious dialogue I always imagine exterior dialogue; ‘between’ traditions. You have presented a coup with a discussion on the ongoing dialogue within a single tradition which reminds us of the vitality of a tradition. We so easily forget that living faiths are not static. I was pleasantly surprised with this read. Again, this was the intention behind the project; one mind alone cannot have all the answers. I look forward to reading more.

    Incidentally, the insight you have of people’s hostility to dialogue is one which I have not seen presented quite so succinctly. The idea that because the conversion was a ‘quick fix’ to emotional pain, the possibility of a sincere intellectual dissection of the faith becomes impossible. Maybe you have touched on one of the roots of fanaticism here. Maybe this is worth exploring further. It certainly has been food for thought. I suspect that you have been reading Slavoj Žižek on ‘Trauma.’

  4. Slavoj, of course, I have all his (her?) books. Actually, no, but I’ll check it out base on your recommend. The whole topic of inter-faith dialogue is so vast and complex that I felt overwhelmed every time I sat down to figure out what to write. So, I opted for personal experience (personal experience = no citations needed). Thanks for the kudos, and yes, it would be very interesting to explore the “quick fix” and “fanaticism” link. Looking forward to hearing what the others came up with. Cheers!

  5. Eric, good introspection. I, too, became fascinated with the phenomena that you described. People who base their relationships on point-counterpoint inter-faith dialogue going off-the-deep end when Orthdoxy comes up. Even though I have a Master’s in Psychology (almost), I didn’t come up with a psychological answer. (not that such an answer is not part of The Answer). I feel the phenomena had spiritual roots. I, too know (knew) good Christian people who would give away every “mint and cummine and anise” to the Lord, but to consider for one moment what life would be like outisde of sola scriptura knocks their smooth, kind, and caring Christian facade away. I believe that it is spiritual struggle you are engaging in when you ask people to set aside their right to interpret the Bible for themself and consider the authority of the Church.

  6. Laurie, “I believe that it is spiritual struggle you are engaging in when you ask people to set aside their right to interpret the Bible for themself and consider the authority of the Church.”

    Wow! So true.

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