Many Protestants are facing the interesting but difficult choice between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. I’ve been getting to know some Orthodox guys via the blogs and facebook lately and have grown in respect for Orthodoxy from them.
For Protestant Americans and Westerners in general, Eastern Orthodoxy looks appealing for many reasons. I leave aside in this post the ultimate determination of whether Orthodoxy is indeed the true Church (with the Catholic Church in schism from it) or vice-versa. Instead, I want to focus on what I see as Orthodoxy’s appeal agnostic of whether it is what it claims to be.
1. It’s Eastern
And we Americans are enamored of all things Eastern. The mysticism, the mystery, the culture. India and Thailand are the new Europe for American hippies who want to live cheaply and explore the world. Just look around your city and count the number of Yoga facilities if you doubt the growing interest we have in the East.
It makes sense. We Westerners pride ourselves on our rational powers. When guided and sanctified by Christianity, this use of our reason is something great. But in the increasingly secular society we live in, where God is more often than not met with an indifferent shrug, and Christianity is old hat, reason fails to fill the yawning faith gap. And so we turn to the East, to religions like Buddhism and Hinduism that seem exotic to us and are less chained to reason.
But most Protestants aren’t ready to jettison Christ for Buddha or Shiva. And this is where Eastern Orthodoxy comes in: Christianity, but not Western Christianity. Christ with meditation, with mysticism. The best of both worlds.
2. It’s Ancient
The liturgy is beautiful and apostolic. It’s reverent and deep, the opposite of most Protestant services today, especially among Evangelicalism. It satisfies the growing desire among Protestants for deeper roots, for a more historically plausible faith, for a connection with the ancient Church that’s organic and continuous.
Most of the Great Councils of the Church took place in the East. Many of the most holy Church Fathers lived in the East. The beauty of its iconography is peerless. Which all adds considerable heft to the claims of Eastern Orthodoxy.
3. It’s Traditional
With a capital ‘T’. The Eastern Orthodox also recognize and believe in Apostolic Tradition. My understanding is–and I’m certainly open to Catholics correcting me–that Apostolic Tradition is also found in Orthodoxy, precisely because they have maintained valid Apostolic Succession. Allow me to quote Pope Benedict on the relationship between Tradition and Succession:
It becomes apparent that “apostolic tradition” and “apostolic succession” define each other. The succession is the form of the tradition, and the tradition is the content of the succession. At the same time, the justification of both principles, which are really one, is to be found in this interconnection: the decisive element by which Catholic Christianity (whether Roman or Greek) is differentiated [from Protestantism]. — Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office, 22-28
He goes on to describe in more detail this relationship between Succession and Tradition, revealing that originally they were both denoted by a single Greek word.
Orthodoxy then, like Catholicism, has Apostolic Succession and rejects sola Scriptura. When Protestants come to realize that the Bible alone is unworkable and not a doctrine of divine origin, they look for the Apostolic Tradition, and find it in Orthodoxy.
4. It’s a bit less strict morally
Orthodoxy allows the use of contraception, as well as divorce and remarriage (under certain conditions). There seems to be an ongoing debate on these subjects within Orthodoxy, but from what I have read and heard, the current consensus allows these practices that the Catholic Church rejects as immoral.
These stances understandably appeal to many Protestants, whose denominations allow contraception without question as well as divorce and remarriage (usually for any reason whatsoever, no questions asked).
5. It’s pope-less
The papacy is one of the greatest stumbling blocks for Protestants. Many have so much ingrained distrust and even revulsion at the notion of the papacy that it’s little wonder that Orthodoxy seems attractive due to its lack of a pope.
It’s hard to overestimate the degree of bias against the pope that most Protestants receive from their churches, pastors, and parents growing up. Even once a Protestant overcomes revulsion to Marian devotion–necessary to consider Orthodoxy as well as Catholicism since the Orthodox revere Mary as fervently as do Catholics–to be Catholic they still have to surmount their prejudice against the bishop of Rome.
In this same vein, Orthodoxy is typically something novel to a Protestant, something they haven’t encountered before, and so they do not have built-in barriers against it.
6. It’s got strong community
Katie and I first noticed this attending Eastern Rite Catholic Churches–Maronite and Byzantine. These are Churches in full communion with Rome. Maronite churches are mainly Lebanese, though now more Latin rite Catholics are switching rites, in part because of their tight-knit community.
Go to your average Catholic parish on Sunday and prepare to be ignored, or at least overlooked. But at Eastern Rite churches you will likely be welcomed and asked questions and people will want to tell you all about how and why they do the liturgy differently, the unique features of their church, and so on.
Same with the Orthodox, except often even stronger. Their churches are the focal points that their lives revolve around, much like it used to be with Catholic parishes. Picnics, after-liturgy hummus and pita, you name it. A close group of people with whom you can share life.
I know several people who have considered or are considering Orthodoxy, often alongside Catholicism as the only alternatives to more aimless drifting in the sea of Protestantism. Many express their frustration that after working so hard to figure out that Protestantism is fatally flawed, they have two options still to choose from instead of one. That’s just one more reason why we need to heed Christ’s call to perfect unity in John 17 and heal the schism.
So what did I miss? What else is attractive about Orthodoxy?