“And they will all be taught by God” John 6:45 – Part 1
Harry Boosalis’s book “Taught by God” promises the reader to be a preliminary to the study of Orthodox Theology, and I’d agree. And though the text is intended for seminary students and driven laity, I wonder that the book – or at least it’s conclusions – doesn’t form the nucleus of excellent advice for those of us who have come to the Orthodox Church in our “hunger and thirst” after something … and we might not even know what it is… but it seems as though perhaps we were driven, or drive ourselves as though for life giving water… when on subsequent reflection the truth may be that this zeal… as good as it is… will have to wither as well and be transformed if it is ultimately to bear fruit as we intend.
And it’s this bearing fruit that’s the problem. For if the Life in Christ is the language of the heart, then it seems to require much study of grammar, vocabulary and context (idiom) to even begin to absorb an understanding of what is being said. And like all language learning, understanding the words that are being said – and only at that level, actually takes us only so far as an ability to find one’s way to a restaurant, order dinner and or sing a song. Living with another person who knows only this language, much less falling in love with them? My guess is that it’s going to take a lot more patience and understanding… real empathy… to pull this off. Perhaps in a nutshell… this is the challenge of the Christian Life as we see it or come to know it in the Orthodox Church.
Leaving Boosalis’s text aside for the moment to ponder some of what springs within as a result, let me suggest that I wonder increasingly that the difference between East and West may be as simple as the speed of life which on one hand wants in one to resonate, sound out and harmonize as a prelude to a waltz, whereas on the other it seems far less musical, far more singular and focused on motion than its grace, and almost as intent as someone caught-up and driven in a march. And so it may be less that this describes a difference between our churches but more of a divergence in our outlooks, characters and within ourselves that result in a scramble as muddled as the chicken-and-egg dilemma… for in truth these difference lie within each of us as much as they lie between.
How do you tell the average achievement oriented American this sort of stuff? We want to have an experience of Christ, we want to reach a new understanding of his message, we want to apply his precepts, we want to fill our senses, our minds, and more as though Christ were some sort of air we could inhale… and we just want this and that… and without limit… that if we really think about it, it seems almost as though we’d rather there weren’t a person of Christ, but an obsession more appropriate to a vending machine you can just punch when you need Him. No, don’t want Him all the time… perish the thought, but when we do… there’s no limit. And it’s not that this is wrong per se (though it seems it), but perhaps these things just have to run their course. And it’d be my guess that our fears in these things – for in some measure surely this is part of the behavior – is that our “turn” somehow lapses untaken or seized by another, and so we press on with all the relentlessness of an ill-dressed tourist intent on seeing the Taj Mahal “today” on his terms… even if it’s closed.
Boosalis begins the book with a somewhat familiar presentation I’d pin down by distinguishing what Orthodox theology is not rather than what it is. This leads him toward what many converts like me will recognize as the seemingly impossible response that it has to be studied in context. Of course the trouble as we begin is that we don’t even know what we’re studying, and thus finding the right context to study a subject about which we know little, and whose content we know even less, much less our our own impediments in learning is almost to leave us ready to call it quits at the very beginning as an impossible journey… which if we follow our usual mode… indeed it is. So he makes the case for a different approach, and so he offers Elder Paisius of Mt. Athos’s quote:
“Theology that is taught as a [worldly] science usually examines things historically and consequently understands things externally. Because patristic asceticism and inner experience are absent, this theology is full of doubts and questions. With his mind man is not able to comprehend the divine energies unless he first struggles ascetically to live these energies, so that the grace of God might work within him.” P.23
Living this life is where Boosalis points us – toward a worshipping community where students live and share the same Orthodox Christian lives that have been lived through the ages by their forebears, “emulating the same spiritual virtues, partaking in the same sacraments, attending the same services, following the same liturgical cycles, singing the same hymns, reciting the same prayers and following the same ways of prayer, being inspired by the same Scriptural readings, observing the same fasts, celebrating the same feasts, commemorating the same Saints, venerating the same holy relics, kissing the same icons, obeying the same canons, upholding the same ethics, preserving the same practices, identifying with the same theological teachings – and above all, receiving the same Holy Body and Blood of Christ – all students of Orthodox theology, from throughout the centuries of the Church’s existence, share a common Faith and communal experience and are thus united in the timeless and eternal bond of two thousand years of Holy Tradition.” P. 27
In the second chapter, Boosalis carries this forward.