Modern Hand painted Romanian icon of the Nativity, via Wikimedia Commons
Below are some thoughts from back in December. To preface them, there is a phrase I’ve heard several times in my classes about Orthodoxy which goes something like this: “To the Orthodox, a paradox is not a puzzle to solve but a mystery to contemplate.” Although it is a bit of an oversimplification and has been repeated enough to become a bit of an Orthodox cliché, there is some truth to the observation that Western Christianity tends to reason things out minutely. For example, in the West the creeds like the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed are taken as a starting point for doctrine, and doctrine proceeds into more and more minute and abstruse distinctions (depending on one’s attitude, Scholasticism is the poster child or the whipping boy whenever people want to point out an example of this tendency). As an alternate example, Catholics have analyzed the sacrament of the Eucharist to such a point that they have identified the moment which they believe is the precise moment that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, and they ring a bell at that moment so that people know when it is. In contrast (as I’ve mentioned before), an Orthodox writer said that the process begins as the wheat for the bread is being sown, continues as the faithful are baking the bread in their home and then as the faithful gather to worship, and culminates in Holy Communion during the Divine Liturgy; it is an ongoing, organic process, not an instant transformation that happens at one particular moment. The Orthodox also reject (while fully believing in Real Presence) the Aristotelian explanation for Real Presence that relies on a distinction between accidents and essence. So in their views towards the Eucharist, the Catholics tend to define and explain things very precisely, while Orthodox tend to focus more on mystery and experience, and mystery is an important aspect of the Orthodox ethos.
With that in mind, here is a journal entry from December in which I was writing about how the word mystery was cropping up in a lot of things that I was reading at the time, which then also leads into some thoughts about certainty and how to make a decision about what church to belong to (i.e. to what extent one should try to be certain in the sense of completely rationally convinced of every single teaching and doctrinal point before making a decision).
I received a Christmas card from Wheaton that says, “Come, contemplate the mystery of the incarnation”: I am so glad that it says mystery of the incarnation, because it makes me feel like I am not turning my back on or severing myself from my Wheaton heritage by pursuing Orthodoxy. It also said somewhere in the letter that the incarnation “opens up windows to eternity.” [This phrase is strikingly similar to the Orthodox teaching about icons being “windows into heaven” by giving us a visual image to make us aware of a living reality that is really there.]
This is a letter from God telling me that Orthodoxy is his good gift to me and not something to be afraid of. [Of course I did not mean “letter from God” literally but was speaking hyperbolically, and the connections to Orthodoxy probably have more to do with Orthodoxy having been on my mind than anything supernatural.]
I also went to CACINA [i.e. the blog Carry the Gospel With You] today, and this is what I found:
“I sometimes think that among the great sins of Christians, as evidenced by the relentless focus on doctrine and orthodox belief, is our quest for certainty on the faith journey. We want to package the truth and categorize it: to know with certainty that this is black, and this is white. We want our religion like we want our breakfast: neat, tidy, without a mess. Advent challenges this attitude–not by asking to deny Christian doctrines–but by inviting us to engage in the spiritual life, which is neither neat nor tidy. Jesus himself says there is no greater born than John the Baptist, but Matthew tells us that on one day, John seems quite sure who is in front of him, and on a later day, he entertains doubts. To engage with God is to enter into the realm of mystery and uncertainty; even the greatest ever born approached the mystery surrounded with shades of grey.”
Note the word mystery.
I think that if I try to completely work out every single uncertainty that I have about Orthodoxy, for one thing, it’s going to take forever, and for another thing, it would negate the need for faith. It is much more an act of trust if while not having worked myself into a position in which I’m already 100% in agreement with Orthodoxy, I decide to become Orthodox; saying “I’m going to become Orthodox because they believe exactly the way that I do” allows me to retain an individualistic self of control and ownership over what is right belief. If, on the other hand, there are some things that I am not certain of, but I decide to become a member of the church anyways and accept those things about which I’m uncertain because the Church is the Church, then that represents faith and submission.
So I need to distinguish between things that I really do need to work out intellectually [here I had listed some specific, weighty doctrinal points] and those which I can accept by trust in the Church. (13 Dec. 2013)
Psychologically speaking, when a person is about to make or has recently made a huge decision, like what college to attend or whom to marry, they tend to mentally look for reasons to justify their decision, and they do actually find those reasons, and everything seems to point to the rightness of that decision. It’s a little bit similar to how if you are thinking of buying a certain car, you will start to notice that car everywhere. I was fully aware back when I wrote this journal entry and am also very consciously aware now that I was (and am) seeing Orthodoxy everywhere because it was (and is) on my mind and seeing justifications for it everywhere because I love it, but being aware of the psychological phenomenon doesn’t at all prevent the person who wants to buy a Toyota from seeing Toyotas everywhere, and that is what has been going on in my mind for quite some time.