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8.1.1: Eastern Orthodox Christianity

  • Page ID
    37100
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    Eastern Orthodox Christianity now predominates among Christians in the Eastern Mediterranean, in Greece, in most of Eastern Europe, and in the former USSR. Significant, growing numbers of Orthodox Christians may be found throughout the world, especially in North America. From an outsider's point of view, closely allied with Eastern Orthodox and highly similar in many practices are a group of much smaller, ancient but distinct Christian traditions, often called Oriental Orthodox (encompassing Nestorian, Monophysite-including the Coptic Church in Egypt and the Ethiopian Church-and Jacobite traditions).9 Oriental Orthodox Christians are found in many places throughout the Middle East, in parts of India, in Northeast Africa (especially Egypt and Ethiopia), and at one time they penetrated Asia as far as China. Mention should also be made here of Uniate churches (e.g., Ukranian Catholics and Lebanese Maronites), that have an Eastern Orthodox or Oriental Orthodox orientation but that have recently entered into association with the Roman Catholic Church while maintaining their traditional liturgies and practices. Orthodox Christians, however, clearly distinguish themselves from socalled Oriental Orthodox Christians, referring to them as non-Orthodox-indeed, as heterodox-principally because of the historic nonagreement of these groups with certain Orthodox doctrinal formulations. For most Orthodox Christians, their Christianity is deeply entwined with their cultural and ethnic identity. Their language and music of worship and the style of their religious art and architecture are in many respects as much an expression of the latter as of the former. Thus, to be Greek, for many at least, is to be Greek Orthodox Christian. To some extent the opposite is true also, though the Greek Orthodox Church includes nonGreek ethnic groups as well. For only a few is being an Orthodox Christian the result of an individual act of free affiliation independent of cultural identity, though this is coming to be true for more and more in religiously pluralistic cultures such as that of the United States. (This phenomenon is not at all unique to Christianity. The same is true, for example, for cultural groups that are traditionally linked with one or another Buddhist subtradition.) Of course, Orthodox Christians may freely elect to take their Christianity more seriously and pursue the promise of life transformation that it offers.

    Despite the diversity that results from its linkage with ethnic identity and national or regional structures of church governance (there is no central authority), Eastern Orthodox Christianity is strongly united on the essentials of faith and worship.10 Eastern Orthodox Christianity conceives itself not as a denomination but as the ancient, original, and authentic form of Christianity, passed down unaltered from the original Apostles and explicated in New Testament scripture, in the teachings of the Apostolic Fathers (in the early centuries of the Church), and in the rulings of the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church (the first in the fourth and the last in the eighth century), which laid down essential doctrines and teachings of the Christian faith. (Oriental Orthodox groups split off in rejecting one or another of these Ecumenical Council rulings.) Accordingly, there is a sense of timelessness and a pervasive presence of the past about Orthodox life and worship, which they take to symbolize the presence of eternity. Orthodox Christianity has never identified with the dynamism of change and development that in many respects have characterized Roman Catholic and Protestant Christianity, especially in their modern forms. To Orthodox thinking, that would be to exchange the kernel for the shell, reality for appearance, eternity for mere time. On the contrary, Orthodoxy is convinced that what really matters is the nontemporal, transcendent mystery of the redemption of the world in Christ and the life in God into which that mystery ushers the Orthodox Christian. Every aspect of Orthodox life and worship is oriented to reinforcing this conviction. The schism of 1054, between itself and the Western Church centered in Rome, Orthodox Christianity believes to have been the result of a departure by the Roman Catholic hierarchy from the original Holy Tradition that Eastern Orthodoxy believes it alone has preserved inviolate.11

    The central and foremost mode of approach to God in Christ for Eastern Orthodoxy is the Divine Liturgy-especially as set within the context of the annual liturgical cycle of holy days, holy seasons, and days of special observance; the daily liturgical cycle of Vespers (Evening Prayer) and Matins (Morning Prayer), at least on the evening and morning preceding the Divine Liturgy; and the life cycle of the sacraments, of Baptism, Chrismation, regular Confession, Unction (when ill), Matrimony (if married), and Holy Orders (if ordained), and other sacramentals, such as the rituals relating to birth and to death. This of course requires ritual specialization and sacramental authority, an ordained status, made up of bishops, priests, and deacons. Whereas Orthodox Bishops are often drawn from monastic life and are therefore celibate, Orthodox priests and deacons usually are married (although priests may not change marital status after ordination). Among Christians, Orthodox Christians are the most formal and sacramental in their mode of worship and the most involving of all the bodily senses, through beautiful poetry; vocal music and chant (no instrumental music); dramatic ritual; visual icons; elaborate vestments; sacred ritual implements; a powerfully structured sense of sacred architectural space; candles; incense; bread and wine to eat; fasting and feasting; and manifold gestures, including kissing and prostration. Though worship language, liturgical style, vocal music, and particular anthems vary from one area of one Orthodox subtradition to another, the fundamental structure of the Divine Liturgy is the same, having been basically finalized in what is now its current form in the late sixth century. To participate fully and faithfully in Orthodox worship is to be transported into another, heavenly dimension and sacramentally ushered into the presence of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the holy angels, and the saints of heaven, there to be progressively transformed into fuller and fuller at-onement with the Holy Trinity.12 This gives the way of sacred rite absolute primacy in an Orthodox Christian's life, with other ways being given a subordinate place (to a greater or lesser degree) in relation to it.

    Next in importance to sacred rite for Orthodox Christianity and sometimes conjoined with it is the way of mystical quest. Basic Christian doctrines, according to Orthodoxy, are not only things to be accepted on faith; they are realities to be experienced through liturgy and mystical prayer. The aim of Christian life, Orthodoxy insists, is to be taken up into God-to be transfigured, made holy, changed in one's very nature from mortality to immortality, divinized (theosis), to "become participants in the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4 [RSV])-by his mystically transforming grace in Christ. God did not become human in Christ primarily to satisfy divine justice (as much Roman Catholic and Protestant theology has put it), but to enable people to come to share intimately in the very life of the Holy Trinity.13 Those who have dedicated themselves most fully to this end have largely taken up the monastic life. In this respect, both eremitic (i.e., in the manner of a hermit) and communal monasticism in Orthodox Christianity have long had a revered place. However, the goal of deification, according to Orthodox Christianity, is for all Christians, not just monastics; so (nonmonastic) laypersons are encouraged to make themselves available to, and to cooperate synergistically with, the mystically transforming grace of God no less than monastics. Contrary to what is found in much of Buddhism, the monastic vocation is not held up in Orthodoxy (or in Roman Catholicism for that matter) as the preferred or better way for all. Specific methods of meditation and spiritual guidance are provided (ideally, at least) for both monastics and laypersons.

    The most comprehensive written compilation of spiritual guidance in Orthodoxy is called the Philokalia (meaning, in Greek, "the love of [spiritual] beauty"). It was assembled and published by Macarius of Corinth and Nicodemus of Naxos in 1782 and includes texts that go back many centuries before.14 The path of meditation there most strongly endorsed has come to be known as hesychasm (from the Greek hesychia, meaning "quietness, rest, inner peace" and specifically referring to the path of solitary inner prayer). It centers on what is called "the Prayer of the Heart," the most classic form of which makes use of the ceaseless repetition of Jesus' name ("the Jesus Prayer") in coordination with breathing. In essence, the path involves centering in solitude and silence, vigilantly guarding the heart by the mind from distraction-"standing with the mind in the heart before God"-while continually invoking the name and merciful grace of Jesus.15 There are many stories told of how persons who diligently pursue this path have had profound and overwhelming experiences of God, transforming them and bestowing on them a godlike radiance in their very being. Mention should be made in this connection of perhaps the greatest mystic to exemplify and poetically celebrate hesychasm, Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), and the most articulate apologist for its theory and practice, Gregory Palamas (1296-1359).

    Aspects of the ways of devotion and right action receive emphasis in Eastern Orthodoxy, sometimes and in some places more so than at others, but never to my knowledge have they attained the status of ways independent of sacred rite or mystical quest. Both lay and monastic Orthodox Christians are often involved in (and encouraged to be involved in) charitable actions beyond basic moral obligations.16 And private Orthodox piety is typically of a devotional nature, sometimes intensely so, and may involve a vital personal relationship with Jesus, Mary (Tbeotokos, "bearer of God"), and various saints. Shamanic mediation is certainly no independent way in Orthodox Christianity, yet stories abound of Orthodox saints and holy persons (as well as icons and relics of the same) exercising miraculous powers on behalf of persons in special need. The Orthodox tradition has always taught that in Baptism and Chrismation (which in Eastern Orthodox Christianity occur together) the Orthodox Christian receives "the [supernatural] gifts of the Holy Spirit,"17 though few appear to develop their alleged full potential. In recent years, the so-called Charismatic Movement (to be described below) has had some impact on Orthodox Christians in America, motivating participants to seek out and exercise these "supernatural gifts."

    Only rarely does there occur in the Eastern Orthodox tradition full-fledged expressions of the way of reasoned inquiry, where serious intellectual inquiry is taken to be a way or even an important aspect of a way to at-onement with God. There are occasionally remarkable Eastern Orthodox philosophers and theologians, but there has been no special ongoing tradition of Orthodox philosophical or theological inquiry, as distinct from exposition of traditionally held theological views. It is clear, however, that philosophically and theologically sophisticated thinking has contributed significantly to the formulation of key points of Orthodox theology and hesychastic theory. Virtually all important aspects of Orthodox theology have become aspects of Orthodox liturgy-for example, as special hymns or prayers-rather than classic texts to be studied and interpreted. Moreover, Orthodox writers often emphasize that "theology" for the Orthodox tradition refers first not to an intellectual study of matters of explicit belief but to the experiential (mystical) knowledge of God. Thus, to the extent that a tradition of theologizing is present in Orthodoxy, it is made to serve worship and mystical prayer. After all, as is frequently pointed out, ortho-doxa means just as much right worship (one of the meanings of doxa is "glory") as it does right teaching or right belief, and for Orthodox Christians even more so.


    This page titled 8.1.1: Eastern Orthodox Christianity is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.