Sunday, February 28, 2021

Letters to My Children - Letter 3: The Orthodox Mind


Next, I want to share with you what I learned about the nature of the Orthodox mind and how it differs from our normal western way of thinking. It is this Orthodox mind that will allow you to know God and become united with Him. Being brought up Orthodox you already have elements of this. But being immersed in a western society you have mostly another way of thinking.

For me it took a long time to begin to develop an Orthodox mind. I am still working on it. I was not brought up in this way of thinking.  My parents were not Orthodox, but they took me to the United Methodist Church as a child with regularity, about like you attended the Orthodox Church in your childhood. The church building was totally different from an Orthodox Church. It was devoid of decoration. The focal point was the pulpit and the sermon was the main event. It was like a large lecture hall. Communion was only offered periodically and was merely symbolic, where a tray of small glasses of grape juice was passed around just like a collection plate. As I look back, it was assumed that our highest power was our rational mind, and it was through our intellect that we came to know God. There was no emphasis on the active role of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the emphasis was on the pulpit and the Sunday sermon. There was also an emphasis on social projects for the poor and disadvantaged. This communicated that if you did good works like this God would favor you. It wasn’t until I became Orthodox through marriage that I had even an inkling of what might be an Orthodox way of thought. My first experiences were mind blowing. I didn’t know what to think the first time I sat through a Divine Liturgy in an Orthodox Church. It was so different. I remember when Kathy would go with me to “my” church when we were dating, and she would say, “I don’t feel like I have been to church.” At that time I didn’t understand what she was saying.

Our Western outlook emphasizes rational thought and questions things that can’t be explained. By the use of this self-endowed power of intellect we believe we can become independent, self-sufficient, successful in a career, a good parent, and Christian, all by our own efforts. Independence and self-sufficiency were emphasized when I was growing up. God was rarely mentioned. I learned that my opinions were as valid as any others, and I was the determiner of what was true. Truth in matters of faith was relative. Because of this, I had difficulty accepting the idea of a higher truth, an absolute Truth. By thinking truth was relative, then my idea of faith was as valid as another’s idea of faith. I was taught by my Methodist pastor that all religions lead to a common goal. It didn’t make any difference, only that some paths may be shorter. I was also taught that we can’t know God except through Scripture. It was mostly up to me individually to make my own interpretation of Scripture. This reliance on self-direction through my intellectual powers I now know is a falsehood. I have learned by experience that what we can know through our intellect is only part of reality. My rational mind is important, but it is not the highest power that I have. I have a soul and a higher mind.  When I was conceived I was given a soul. In a sacramental Orthodox baptism we become a holy temple, and God lives within us. For Orthodox, baptism is the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s mystical and transformative. For many Christians, like Baptists, it’s only an ordinance. They seem to ignore the transforming role of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, to become truly Orthodox I had to learn a new way of thinking.

The Greek word for this idea of a way of thinking is “phronema.” Some call it a world view. We will uncover what is the Orthodox “phronema” and eventually learn how one develops it. Remember, that for me, this took a long time, and I am still working on it.

When discussing Christianity, the Western churches use much the same terminology as the Orthodox Church, but their meaning is often quite different. (Like the difference in Holy Communion or baptism mentioned earlier.) We will get one meaning with the normal rational outlook and another with a more mystical or spiritual one. It is not rational to think that the Holy Spirit can change bread and wine into the actual Body and Blood of Christ. But this is an absolute truth for a true Orthodox Christian.

Roman Catholics have the most in common with Orthodox Christians, but they think they understand Orthodox thinking and practice when they really don’t. Why? Because they have a different way of thinking, a different “phronema.” For Orthodox, logical definitions and arguments are not important to understanding things about God, while they are essential to a Western Christian mind. For Catholics almost everything is given an explanation. Like it was for me, it is difficult for them to “think Orthodox.” I will try to help you understand how to “think Orthodox.”

The Orthodox faith involves an integration of faith, thought, and the way of life that the Apostles learned from Jesus. They were simple fishermen who learned from their direct relationship with Christ. They were not philosophers. They did not have a book to study about the nature of Christ. Of course they knew the Psalms and stories from the Old Testament with its many miracles and divine interventions. Remember, Jesus did not use logical arguments or written guides to teach them. He told them stories, parables, and performed miracles and showed them by how He lived in unity with His divine will. Even they had difficulty understanding what He was teaching them until after His Resurrection. They witnessed Him crucified and resurrected, then appearing to them after His death when He could teach them the deep mysteries. Some of them recorded what they observed which has become what we call the New Testament Gospels. What they were taught, and how they worshiped and lived has been passed on in the Orthodox Church unchanged over generations, in different languages and cultures. You will not find all of this written in the New Testament. This way of life involves being always aware of the heavenly kingdom where Christ is king, with the multitudes of angels, and saints who have been taken up to heaven to serve Him and glorify Him. With this vision of divine reality we are moved by love to follow the way of life Christ taught. It embraces miracles based on the reality of higher powers, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments of the Church. We accept that God is everywhere, in all things and all places, supporting the created world. It accepts the reality of a Creator that established the natural order we have gradually begun to understand in part through scientific study. It views God’s  powers as unlimited. It sees God as three persons, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but yet one God.

My view of God changed as I developed this Orthodox phronema. Our way of thinking does determine how we view God. For Orthodox there is room for ambiguity, uncertainty, paradox, and mystery. We are asked to seek a knowledge greater than that available to us through our intellectual powers. Orthodox resist and avoid definitions, reject legalistic thinking, or any way of thinking that seems to box in God with earthly terms. There is aways something more than what we experience through our senses that we can only access though our soul and its higher powers. 

We cannot limit our understanding to what is written in Scripture as I was taught in the Methodist Church to analyze intellectually. In addition to the mysteries hidden in the words, there is much more that the Apostles were taught than what they could write down. This is what is known as Holy Tradition. This is another dimension of the Orthodox mind.

Everything is interconnected. We cannot discuss Scripture without referring to Tradition, the writings of the fathers, and the practices that have passed down through the Church unchanged. We are taught to suspend our intellectual study and let the words speak to our heart. What we don't understand we don't critique, but hope for a future reading when the meaning will be revealed to us. Our liturgical life is filled with ancient hymns that point us to truth. There are many ways available to point us to this greater reality. To understand Scripture we need to make sure our view is consistent with Tradition and what the early Church fathers taught, not just our own clever thoughts. When there appears to be more than one truth it’s not which one is correct, but that they all are true. The conflict is held as a mystery. To fully understand, we need to be lifted to a higher state. The Church fathers were holy men who had a direct experience of God. Because of this they have a deep understanding of the meaning of Scripture. It is therefore important to listen to what they teach. In understanding Scripture we also need to include the whole, everything that is written, not just a selected piece. 

In this Orthodox mind we need to embrace Heaven as real. We need to see the Holy Spirit as God in action. We need to value the sacramental life in the church, because the  sacraments all involve the work of God through the Holy Spirit. Part of this Orthodox mind accepts ambiguity, uncertainty, and above all mystery. In thinking about God we must learn to be humble and accept that we are limited in nature. We must hold a vision of another spiritual world and hold this entire structure in our consciousness. 

When I was in the process of becoming truly Orthodox, I was led by the writings of Saint Theophan the Recluse in  the book, The Path to Salvation. There was a section that I came back to over and over again because it was hard for me to understand this expanded view. He summarized it this way:

“God is One worshiped in Trinity. The Creator and Upholder of all things, or as the Apostle says, the Head of all things (cf. Eph. 1:10) in our Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit, active in the Holy Church, which, having perfected the faithful, transports them to another world. This world will continue until the fullness of time, or the end of time, when, at the resurrection and judgment all will receive according to their deeds—some will descend into hell, while others will dwell in paradise, and God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor. 15:28).”

With humility we can be lifted to a state where we understand these mysteries. I remind you again, this does not happen for most of us overnight or even in a year. Once we accept that there is a higher way of thinking, then we will want to strive to develop it in ourselves.

I leave you with a question. Can you see any differences in the Orthodox way of thinking from your normal way of thinking? What is the kind of thinking you are taught in our schools and how does it differ from this “Orthodox mind”? How do you deal with paradox and ambiguity in matters of faith? How do you understand miracles?

We will continue our discussion of the Orthodox phronema, and how to gain it, in the next letter.

More reading: Eugenia Constantinos, PhD, is the author of a book titled Orthodox Thinking: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind.

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