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!