So You’re Not Catholic?

So You’re Not Catholic?

As I promised last week, today we’ll tackle another really common question you probably get asked on campus:

So you’re sort of like Catholic? What’s the difference?

Image from Nemo on Pixabay

Talking about Orthodox-Catholic relations and history is no easy task. Don’t get me wrong, there are volumes and volumes on the subject, but not a whole lot that you can share palatably to the guy across the table from you in the dining hall. Let’s just say Facebook knows our relationship status best: It’s complicated. 

You have to remember that, although 1054 is the date everyone throws around as our official break up date, the Great Schism was anything but a clean break which started long before the mutual excommunications between Rome and Constantinople that happened in 1054 and lingered on into at least the 15th century. Even today, you’ll get all sorts of versions of how things happened and how they are going depending on who you ask.

So when someone drops this question in your lap, what can you say without: a) a degree in theology and Church history; b) being polemical and harsh; and c) making the inquirer regret asking?

Here are three things that are real theological issues on which we as Orthodox do not see eye to eye with our Catholic brothers and sisters.

Reminder: Get to know who you are talking to–it definitely matters in this conversation if the person to whom you are speaking is Catholic themselves or not!

The Trinity

You’ve probably heard of the filioque, but if you’re like me, you’re never quite sure what it really means. The word filioque translates from Latin to mean “and the Son” which is a Latin addition to the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed that we recite at every Liturgy. Specifically, here’s the difference:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son

Historically, the filioque was added at a local council in Spain in an attempt to combat Arianism (the denial that Christ was fully God). It was not accepted as a valid addition ever in the East, and only much later in the West (even Pope Leo III forbade its usage in the 9th century). So besides its addition being novel and not accepted by the entirety of the Church, what does it actually mean and why don’t the Orthodox accept it?

Well, there are many reasons that have been drawn up by Orthodox theologians and saints over the centuries, but here are the two that I think are most compelling:

  1. This line in the Creed is specifically quoting John 15:26: “But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me.” So the addition of the filioque does not have the strength of the Scriptures behind it.
  2. Orthodox theology holds that the three Persons of the Trinity are one in essence and share all the attributes of that essence, and that they differ only in their relationship to each other–their personhood. Furthermore, there is no divine nature apart from the Persons of the Trinity, and the Father is the source of that divinity (in other words, there is no “god-ness” without the Father). This matters because it protects the
    In Rublev's Trinity, the angels in the middle and on the right, representing the Son and the Spirit respectively, look to the angel on the left, representing the Father, as an affirmation that the Father is their source. CC Image from Wikimedia

    In Rublev’s Trinity, the angels in the middle and on the right, representing the Son and the Spirit respectively, look to the angel on the left, representing the Father, as an affirmation that the Father is their source. CC Image from Wikimedia

    complete freedom of God–the Trinity is not a logical necessity of God’s existence, but an expression of His love and desire for communion. Thus, the Father is the Father in that He is the source of divinity for the Son and the Spirit, the Son is the Son in that He is begotten of the Father, and the Spirit is the Spirit in that He proceeds from the Father. You can probably see how the addition of the filioque skews this understanding of the Persons and the nature of God so that the Spirit either becomes subordinate to the Father and the Son (perhaps even becomes “less god”) or the Father no longer becomes the one source of divine nature. Ok, I’m turning it over to the saints here:

You ask what is the procession of the Holy Spirit? Do you tell me first what is the unbegottenness of the Father, and I will then explain to you the physiology of the generation of the Son, and the procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be stricken with madness for prying into the mystery of God.
— Saint Gregory the Theologian

The Papacy

As I mentioned in last week’s post, the Bishop of Rome was once in communion with the Bishops of the East, too. We do not dispute the validity of the See of Rome or its founding by Peter or even its original preeminence among its brother patriarchates. Here’s where we diverge:

  1. The universal jurisdiction of the pope: In other words, we don’t think any bishop has jurisdiction over  the entire Church, but rather that every bishop is the pastor for his own geographically-specific flock and comes  together with the other bishops (as well as the people) to affirm the Orthodox faith when called upon to do so. The claim of universal jurisdiction by the Pope of Rome was originally largely based of a forged document known as the Donation of Constantine which Pope Leo IX (in 1054), not knowing of its spurious origins, cited to Patriarch Michael I causing all sorts of problems.
  2. The infallibility of the pope: Not officially a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church until Vatican I, the idea that the pope is incapable of error when he is defining doctrine concerning faith and morals is not accepted by the Orthodox Church. In fact, we don’t think anyone is infallible in their theological statements, even the saints. Orthodox theology holds that the whole Church, gathered in council and under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is guided in making these decisions.

The Original Sin

Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden and now we are born in exile. Image from A Readers Guide to Icons

Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden and now we are born in exile. Image from A Readers Guide to Icons

Although it seems in its most recent catechism, the Catholic Church has softened its language to reflect a more Orthodox understanding of original sin, historically the understanding of original sin has varied greatly between the two churches causing a number of divergent doctrines as a result. Namely, the Catholic Church has traditionally held that we inherit not only the consequences of the first sin of Adam and Eve, but also bear the

guilt of that sin as if we committed it ourselves. The Orthodox understanding of the fall is that all of humanity–indeed, all of creation–was broken and distorted by the ancestral sin and left all future generations with its consequences, most importantly death, but that we do not bear the guilt of that sin. Sin is a distortion within a person, but does not change his being. This distinction is important primarily because over the years, a number of other doctrines have been articulated in the Catholic tradition based on this understanding of original sin which are not present in Orthodox theology. For example: the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, the idea that Mary was conceived by her parents without the stain of original sin. For a really great article on original sin and its theological implications, try Original and Ancestral Sin: A Brief Comparison.

It’s important to understand that these theological differences have grown from complex historical, theological, and practical roots, and that no casual conversation will explicate or solve our differences. And really, talking about who we’re not is not nearly as engaging and lovely as talking about who we are, but nonetheless, at times we are called upon to answer this particular question, and I hope that this post has helped you feel more prepared if and when that question is posed to you.

Five Minute Church History Lesson

Five Minute Church History Lesson

We’re talking outreach again this week. Now that we have the principles down, what can we say when we get questioned about our faith? Let’s start with the hardest question you’ll probably get.

Orthodox? What’s that?

In the back of my head, I’m always thinking…”Hmm…where to start?” It will take us all a lifetime of liturgy, prayer, learning, compassion, humility, and repentance to really answer that question, but as some of you have probably found, a little history lesson is a good place to start for the casual inquirer. And we’re not talking detailed or complex history for you history buffs out there. Just the plain and simple–something that can get the conversation started in a non-confrontational way.

So here goes. My Five-Minute-or-Less Church History Lesson:

The Orthodox Church is the ancient Christian Church, starting at the time of the Apostles and continuing down to us today with an unbroken line. In the early Christian Church, there were five main centers of Christianity: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, and each of those centers had a patriarch or pope (same word)–basically, an important bishop. For about a thousand years, there was only one Christian Church, but when the East and the West split, Rome became the Roman Catholic Church while the other four centers remained in communion with each other and became known as the Eastern or Greek Orthodox Church. Today, while the majority of Orthodox Christians are in Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, there are Orthodox Christians all around the world, including here in the United States/Canada.

Whew. I think I even did that in less than 150 words.

There are two ways the conversation typically goes after this.

Option One:

Hmm…I never heard of that. That’s interesting.

And now’s your chance for some hospitality so you say,

Yeah, it’s really beautiful. Do you mind me asking you what your faith background is?

And now you listen.

Option two:

So…is it sort of like Catholic?

That one deserves its own post, So until next week, keep sharing Christ’s Church with love and grace! Oh, and let us know what questions you’ve come across on campus!

How Do We Share Orthodoxy?

How Do We Share Orthodoxy?

What do we say to non-Orthodox people about Orthodoxy?

CC Image from Free Vector Art

CC Image from Free Vector Art

This is probably the number one question I hear floating around OCF chapters and conversations with young adults. As Orthodox Christians in North America, we are certainly a religious minority, and as college students on diverse campuses, you have been–willingly or not–selected as ambassadors and representatives of the Orthodox faith. Even just setting up a table on campus at your student activities fair can elicit questions about who we are, what we believe, how we worship.

I’d like to make a few suggestions over the next few weeks about how we can address some of the most common questions you get asked on campus (so you’ll have to tell me what they are), but today, I’d like to talk about how we do our sharing more than what we share.

We’ve touched on this theme before–that it’s important above all to recognize the image of God in the other person, to look for common ground, and to express ourselves with love, humility, and prayer. To those principles I’d like to add these:

  1. We are not looking for an argument and we aren’t out to win anything. I’d like to think that sharing our faith should be an act of hospitality, like offering a person a cool glass of water as they journey across a desert, not like dumping a whole bucket of water on the ground in front of them and telling them to lap it up from the sand or taunting them with the glass of water until they say what we want. We are inviting someone into our home and should seek not to be offensive or rude to our guests. Sometimes, the other person wants the argument, and then we must use our discernment to decide if we should continue the conversation or graciously excuse ourselves.
  2. We shouldn’t be afraid to speak the truth in love. Seeking not to be offensive or rude is not the same as adjusting or hiding our beliefs to avoid making someone uncomfortable. It’s true that for some people the Christian faith will always be offensive (even St. Paul knew this). I once got a fortune cookie that read “Love truth, but pardon error.” I think this is the foundation of real tolerance, that we know and love the Truth and pursue it unabashedly, but that we constantly excuse the errors of those around us. In fact, this principle applies to more than just dialogue with non-Orthodox, but to the entire spiritual life. Now, this isn’t an excuse to be self-righteous or condescending but should encourage us to share Truth even when it may seem difficult or when others seem to resist it violently. That’s ok. God has allowed them to reject Him, we don’t have to worry about them rejecting us.
  3. History is important. You may think I mean Church History, but I mean the other person’s history. Everyone has a story, and people ask their questions based on their own experiences and beliefs. It’s a lot easier to answer questions in a helpful and loving way if you know why they’re being asked and where the person is coming from. Not to mention it’s just downright respectful to bother to ask the other person about themselves. You’ll open doors to understanding, dialogue, and friendship just by bothering to say, “Tell me about yourself.”
  4. The person is more important than the point. Don’t forget that love above all else is our goal. It can be easy to forget this when we are excited about sharing the faith that we love so dearly, but remember that the strongest expression of our faith is showing love to others as icons of Christ.

Let’s keep these in mind as we try to address some common questions you get on campus. Tell us in the comments what questions you’d like us to tackle!

St. Justin Martyr – Dialogue & Respect

St. Justin Martyr – Dialogue & Respect

St. Justin Martyr–sometimes called “the Philosopher”–lived in the time when Christianity was first making its mark on the world, figuring out how to express the Truth of Jesus Christ in a world that was not only unfamiliar with the salvation history of the Jews and the new revelation brought through the Messiah, but hostile towards anyone who did not accept the established beliefs of the majority. Christians (and Jews) were misunderstood, at best, and persecuted to the point of death, at worst, by the Roman authorities who saw the new religion as a threat to society and interpreted certain aspects of the Christian faith as disgusting and backwards.

Justin was a highly educated philosopher before and after his conversion to Christianity, and as an educated Christian, he felt it his responsibility to understand the views of those around him and help those outside of the Church understand Christianity as a rational faith and ultimately, as the one true Faith. He wrote two apologies or defenses of Christianity to the Roman authorities in which he explained the beliefs of the Christians, asked that they be treated as equal citizens under the law, and dispelled rumors about the actions of his fellow believers.

But here’s the best part: St. Justin didn’t do this by sending a Bible (there wasn’t one yet, anyway) to the emperor and expecting that he would see things from his perspective. Instead, he took what he knew the Romans knew–pagan cult worship, philosophy, and mythology–and demonstrated how these sources revealed shadows of the Truth that Christians had now come to know fully. While he certainly rejected many of the pagan ideas and especially their practices, Justin believed that all of God’s creation was imbued with his reason, his patterns, his Logos. Therefore, he viewed non-Christians–yes, even those who persecuted Christians–as bearers of the “seeds of the word,” as humans in which God had implanted his Truth who simply needed the right kind of cultivation to help those seeds grow.

And hence there seem to be seeds of truth among all men… –First Apology XLIV

Are we, like St. Justin, looking for the little bits of truth in the world around us? Do we have the discernment of the Spirit to know what from outside the Church can be praised and lifted up as part of God’s intended pattern and which are the distortions that must be rejected? Do we see in every person, especially those who disagree with our Christian faith, the mark of our Maker, His own handiwork, the seeds of His Word? Are we cultivating those seeds with love and gentleness or do we let them lie dormant in our neighbors or worse, try to throw them out as garbage?

Following the Philosopher, we can take away a few principles:

  1. To engage others, our education should be well-rounded–we have to know what others know and believe to open up a dialogue.
  2. While recognizing the innate goodness of God’s creation, we should pray for the spiritual discernment to recognize distortions of that truth for what they are, not accepting all things wholeheartedly.
  3. Every person has been made in the image and likeness of God, and that includes their reasoning. We have to be respectful of the conclusions others have drawn with that reasoning, even if we think it is incomplete or incorrect.
  4. We should recognize the seeds of the truth in the thoughts of others as a point of reconciliation and agreement and let them be a starting place for dialogue.

And let me add one more, though I’m sure St. Justin would agree…

Love is the water by which the seeds of the Word grow.

On Unity: Finding Unity in Christ

This year’s OCF theme is unity, centered around Psalm 132:1 (OSB),

“Behold, what is so good or so pleasant as for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

This week is part two of a six part series centered around Orthodox perspectives on unity. The series will consist of reflections from student leaders and College Conference workshop speakers, leading up to College Conference at the end of December.

This is a guest post from Fr. Brendan Pelphrey, parish priest at Assumption of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church in Price, Utah and a workshop speaker at this year’s College Conference West. Fr. Brendan is an expert on Orthodox Christian apologetics and missionary work. He has published four books and about a hundred articles, book chapters, reviews, and monographs on Christian theology, prayer, mission, world religions, and medieval studies.

There are different kinds of unity. People can tolerate one another, and so appear unified. Better, they can become friends. But far beyond these is the unity which is ours in Christ. It is the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit, in the Body of Christ. It makes us truly one and transcends friendship, human love, even time and space and leads into eternity.

The Apostle Paul teaches that Christ fills all things, and in Him all things hold together (Ephesians 1:22, Colossians 1:17). Thus, communion with Christ leads to communion with all that exists. We discover this communion when, in the words of the ascetics, the mind “descends into the heart.” Here, in stillness, we draw close to God. Only then, we begin to understand our real purpose in life as God’s children, and we discover the awesome beauty and worth of everything that God has made.

When this happens, we realize that all people are icons of Christ. They become the presence of Christ for us. Paradoxically, people who do not know Christ at all discover Him in us, but we do not necessarily see Christ in ourselves because we are aware of our own sins. Strangely, it is only because of this awareness, in repentance and humility, that we are empowered to bring others to Christ.

Orthodox Christians know that we do not tell other people what to believe or how to live. Instead, we pray for them and demonstrate the love of Christ for them. This makes it possible for us to enter into dialogue about the nature of God and His Church; about our communion with the Earth and all that God has made.

Going to college or university is an awesome opportunity to experience the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in creating unity. Here we encounter—sometimes for the first time—people of other ethnic backgrounds and ways of life, of all religions and no religion. Without going anywhere, we inevitably find ourselves in the position of world missionaries, presenting the Orthodox Way simply by being who we are.

As a college professor and OCF spiritual advisor, I have enjoyed watching the Holy Spirit draw students into communion from all backgrounds. On one campus, for several years the entire Orthodox Christian Fellowship was made up of non-Orthodox students who had simply stumbled upon a celebration of Great Vespers by accident. Becoming Orthodox, one of them later graduated from Holy Cross School of Theology and is now awaiting ordination as an Orthodox priest.

At another university, some Orthodox students made friends with members of the Pagan Society. Soon, Pagans began attending our weekly Bible studies and did so until they graduated. They were surprised to learn, for example, that St. Ephrem the Syrian spoke of the Earth as our Mother; that there were Christians saints who befriended bears and lions; and that the Bible teaches that all things are alive to God. Similarly, on still another campus, a group of Native Americans were deeply moved to learn about Orthodox spirituality, and asked for special prayers at Pascha just with themselves (we sat on deerskins, and out of respect, the warriors left their medicine bags outside).

It is exciting to realize that our Orthodox Way resonates strongly with followers of many world religions and spiritual paths. Hindus readily understand our view that Christ is the Center of all that exists. Buddhists appreciate the practice of compassion and of apatheia (“passionless-ness”). Jews and Muslims alike see in us that God is not merely justice, but forgiving Love. Wiccans and Native Americans are amazed that in our view, even rocks and seas are alive to God and that our task is to live in harmony with them, as caretakers of God’s creation. Atheists respond readily to the realization that, as St. John says in his first letter, anyone who has ever loved has known God, because God is Love.

All this has led me, in the few years of my own priesthood, to the privilege of baptizing followers of many religious backgrounds. When we speak of unity, then, let us practice it in truth. We can invite anyone to share in fellowship with us, whether they are Orthodox Christians or not.

Who knows which of them will meet Christ in us, and ask for baptism? Or, perhaps, decide to become teachers of our faith or to enter into the holy priesthood of the Church?