Sunday, June 29, 2008

My spiritual journey

I'm still thinking of how to explain my seemingly odd choices in life to family and friends.
I guess one thing I would say about my spiritual journey is that it started with my Baptist upbringing. I was raised like everyone else as a Baptist - one big difference was that I underwent a serious conversion at the age of 15 and began actively, by my own choice, learning and practicing the Baptist faith. Things like Wednesday night Bible study, Thursday night soul-winning, Jack Chick tracts, Word of Life, etc, were for me serious business. I realized that faith was something that defined all of life and that if you believed something, you ought to act on it.

I guess my siblings came to similar conclusions later, to varying degrees. The important thing was that as an older teen, for a few years I actively practiced the Baptist faith. I believed it without question.

I gradually began to question it, though. I felt like some of the things it seemed the Bible said, "Ask and ye shall receive", well, I wasn't receiving, and what bothered me even more was that the logical conclusion of the Baptist faith for me was that God had evidently created billions of people, knowing that most of them would, through ignorance or foolishness, reject salvation and choose to go to hell, so that He could have a small number of people who voluntarily chose Him. Seemed pretty 'damned' selfish to me. There were other things, but at the time, they were big enough for me. So when I joined the military, I wound up dropping faith like a hot rock, all the more because I was so rapidly disillusioned by the treatment of recruits and volunteers. I spent 5 years in a highly cynical environment and ceased to believe in anything. The result was that I spent 20 years as a lazy agnostic who didn't want to think about it.

Along the way I encountered foreign cultures and languages, learned about the art of translation and realized that ideas like "the King James Bible is the only Bible" were just low-brow nonsense from people who understood nothing about what translation is. That and other nails in the coffin of my childhood/young adult faith, like the gradual realization that the Jack Chick tracts I had loved were full of out-and-out lies and misinformation, at least as far as the Catholic Church was concerned.

It was reading CS Lewis, who my wife kept sticking under my nose, that got me to taking faith seriously again. Eventually, I reached a point where I had to make a decision. I had to return to Christianity, but where? I couldn't return to the Baptists. They simply didn't have enough of the Truth, even though it was clear that Christ is indeed the Way. I was still somewhat prejudiced against Catholics. My wife was Orthodox, and I immediately began investigating it. I figured that if it 'fit the bill', it would result in total family unity. Not the best reason to choose a faith, but in hindsight...

The more I learned the more impressed I was with the Orthodox Church. It really had existed continuously for 2,000 years, and had an entirely verifiable history - something most Protestants have a serious problem with - serious Protestant histories tend to start at the reformation; as if the Holy Spirit had taken a 1,500 year vacation and let everything go to pot. Even stronger was the fact the the Protestant Reformation was aimed at things that had gone wrong in the Catholic (western) Church, and so was entirely irrelevant to Eastern Orthodoxy. The fact that one Church See (Rome) had effectively excommunicated all the others (Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria) in 1054 made it obvious that one had broken away from 4, rather than the other way around. I read through the Symbol of Faith (the Nicene Creed) and found that I totally agreed with it - that I could accept all of it!

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible.
And in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by Whom all things were made; Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven, and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. And the third day He arose again, according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father; Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; Who spoke by the prophets.
In one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The remarkable thing was how similar Orthodoxy was to my childhood faith in doctrine, while being seemingly totally different in practice!
Church History

I still had objections to things like confession before a priest - childhood indoctrination is strong! - but after talking to Father Victor Sokolov I realized that I had been involved with a secular men's group where all the men "checked-in" (confessed in front of ALL the others) every week, and that my barrier was one I had erected myself. So I gave in and went to be chrismated [my prior baptisms (Catholic baby and Baptist child baptisms) were both valid by Orthodox teaching that there is but one Baptism - with water and the Spirit, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, so my Catholic baptism was even valid], and a couple of weeks later, knowing very little about the Faith I had accepted, flew off to Russia to live. (Talk about faith!)

Sola Scriptura
I've since learned a lot. One of the biggest has been the basis of authority, any authority that we accept. When it comes to Christianity, everyone I know (back home in the US) refers to the Bible as the authority. That sounds fine. There's only one problem. What if two people, both intelligent and educated, read the same passage and come to different or contradictory conclusions? In a court of law we would never accept a document as ultimate authority - at some point a physical and living judge who actual speaks audibly to the parties in disagreement has to issue a decision that one or both may not like in order to keep society functional and to prevent chaos and anarchy. This is essentially what the Protestant reformation did - it did not eliminate the Pope - it made EVERYONE Pope unto themselves. The result - now we have thousands of "denominations" (a concept that did not exist prior to the Reformation) and "independent" churches, all of whom interpret the Bible contradictorily - "the gospel according to Pastor X". Surely this is not what was meant when it was promised that "the Holy Spirit would lead the Church into all truth". (John 16:12-15)

The problem, obviously, is not inerrancy of Scripture, but the inerrancy of the interpretation of the reader.

Another huge problem is our life spans - we live maybe 70-odd years, if that - we only have time to start from scratch as babies; by the time we are 21 we have the audacity to stand up and tell others what ancient writings separated from us by half a world and two millenia or more really mean. For example, I learned that doctrines like the ever-virginity of Mary, which Martin Luther totally accepted, were thrown overboard later by western Protestants for whom the word 'brother' means a male child of the same parent, unlike their eastern counterparts, for whom it also refers to cousins. (You should see the trouble I have teaching the words 'brother' and 'sister' to Russian kids using only English - they keep trying to count in their cousins!) So things like "Jesus's brothers" and Matt. 1:24-25, where the word "until" is used to imply that Mary "gave up her virginity" after the birth of the Son of God, whereas knowledge of the original Greek "eos" would show that "while" is probably a better translation than "until" in modern English - on such things hang doctrine and acceptance or rejection of a faith. For these reasons, it became obvious to me that the individual is simply incapable of correctly interpreting Scripture on their own.

Thus for me it became obvious that there MUST BE a physical presence of the Church, that we can turn to and it can authoritatively tell us how to navigate the complexities of such minefields. Furthermore, the Church must have BOTH living representatives that can talk to us AND a continuous Tradition that faithfully hands on what Christ and the Apostles taught. Sure, everybody claims to have this, but no one can offer historical evidence prior to 1500 AD aside from the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. If you're really looking for a continuous presence of the Church established by Christ, that narrows it down pretty quickly.

In the whole debate of where the Church is, and more importantly, how a person can be saved - an explanation that reconciles a merciful God with the Bible and the Church - most come to one of two extreme conclusions - either some form of universalism ('don't worry, everybody will be saved - your life and faith choices don't really matter as long as you are trying to please God and your conscience') or a 'my-church/faith-is-the-only-way-to-be-saved'. I don't think either one is true.
Salvation is something God does, not us. God saves whom He will - it's not up to us to dictate who will be saved. He may know/see something we don't, about ourselves and others, that represents true acceptance of Christ and submission to Him.
Personally, I see it as a dart board. The true Church is the bullseye, but there are circles closer to or farther from that bullseye. Anyone who hits the board may be saved. Obvious, atheists, agnostics and pagans (Wiccans, etc) aren't even really on the board. (There IS such a thing as not being on the board.) But it is important to get as close as you can to the bullseye, and the bullseye offers the surest path to correct teaching on salvation and everything else. If you think the Way, the Truth and the Life, and your eternal soul to be of any import, then that should be your goal, and I have excellent reason to believe that to be the Orthodox Church.

Anyway, CS Lewis and GK Chesterton have been my co-pilots in trying to grasp the roots of modern thought - the kind of thought I was unconsciously brought up in. It's always been obvious to me that you should find the smartest people you can and learn from them.

One big difference is that the Orthodox Church does not try to "convince people to become Christian". Evangelism is based a lot more on how you live your life than on your ability to pressure others. We say, as both Christ and Philip said, "Come and see!"


Anonymous Anonymous said...


I got to your blog from the Wardrobe website. I must say I was very interested in reading your journey to Russian Orthodoxy (at least that is what I discerned). I found it interesting that you were a baptist in your younger years. I came to faith in a southern baptist church seven and half years ago, and I have been a member there since. I have found myself in the last years questioning much of the doctrine and theology that is assumed within the the baptist denomination. I don't feel as you do that they don't have enough truth, but that they move to an over literal position on many things, especially on end times.
Now, I don't want to debate the virginity of Mary or confession to priests, though maybe later:) However, I have found myself moving from different points like you. First I have become very reformed (I am not saying you are reformed in anyway) in my faith, studying men like Jonathan Edwards, J. C. Ryle, John Calvin, John Piper and many more like them. However, I like you have found myself saying what happened before the reformation. How did the church arrive to the conclusions that they did on theology.
Hence, I have now began a huge interest in C. S. Lewis, Chesterton and am trying to read Macdonald. I like N. T. Wright, but I have a hard time with the way he writes, and his view of Justification. I guess my problem is when I read scripture (I don't know Greek, but I am in school studying Religion and Theology) I don't see things that you have described in your post. Understand I am not pro-baptist, but pro-Christ. I am not a raging fundamentalist, but I do love the fundamental things. I know this is a long post and was hoping that we can have a friendly dialogue on the differences, not to debate you, but that I might get answers on the differences. Hope that makes since!

3:13 AM  

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