Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | March 2, 2008

A Journeyman

Though I’m not a big Rowling fan, I still love her notion of the “Sorting Hat” that sorted everyone into their proper houses (dormitories). And I think of it whenever it comes to reading conversion stories.

With all the changes in all our houses of prayer over the course of the last 50 years, the game seems a bit different. Today, it’s almost as if there’s an In-Hat that sorts folks on the outside, but within, there seems to be narrower definition of membership or “belonging” in ways less conducive to the spread of the faith – whatever that faith might be. There is a desire for purifying the temple… and purging those who think otherwise… however or whatever otherwise is. In some places, this “contract” or standard of faith has been consistent for 2,000 or more years. But elsewhere it’s more of a movable target.

And it is here where most of the problems have been as many have simply found themselves flat-footed in the midst of their changing institutions. “Gotta catch the next wave!” People are different, times have changed, and the next guy is more important than the last misfit. No staff or professional time for the hard work of really managing members conversions, so emphasis shifts to simply finding more “folks like me”. Sometimes the ship of faith springs a leak on its own; sometimes the captain calls the marketers to figure out what change is needed to get the “right sort of people” on board, while gently setting the testy backbiters adrift.

Were the process to ultimately settle into a series of reasonably stable pocket-sized denominations, then the merits might finally exceed the pains. My guess is that today the premise of separation and freedom inherent in our contemporary notions of individuality mean that only an overwhelming force of personality can keep a people coherently together. And as soon as (or if) this is gone from our midst, the natural law of human entropy renews. By contrast, it would seem escaping these laws requires change in our assumptions regarding individuality, freedom, and our sense of ourselves as members of a Body. Consequently, I’d wonder whether our diminished understanding of the Incarnation as well as the Trinity simply puts a broader sense of corporality beyond our grasp, and leaving it to become a political rather than sacramental notion. But that’s another story.

The story I wanted to draw attention to was in Sunday’s New York Times. Dana Jennings writes of his conversion to Judaism after growing up Protestant. Although conversion to his wife’s faith may differ from a cold-turkey conversion on one’s own, I’ve heard that marriage was at one time the most common path of conversion to Orthodoxy as well. But Jennings hits some key experiences:

“What won me over to Judaism was the insistence that our sacred texts were still vivid, still alive, the idea that the Torah and the Talmud were meant to be wrestled with the way Jacob wrestled with the angel. In the Protestantism of my childhood, the Bible, especially the New Testament, was meant to be read, but reverentially. The words were cast in stone; they didn’t resonate with the earthy energy that I find in Torah.”

“And, too, I was moved by a tradition in which we are still in dialogue with our greatest teachers. We Jews speak of the ancient sages Hillel and Rabbi Akiva as if we just had an espresso with them at Starbucks. We still refer to Moses Maimonides, the brilliant 12th-century rabbi and physician, as if he still made house calls. We don’t dwell on saints and martyrs, but on flesh and blood men and women.”

I think both the “vivid” and “still alive” notions of the text and wrestling with it is very much the notion of the Orthodox Church. There is the sense of putting ourselves very much into the story as one of the characters and considering its meaning in our lives as though were we participants – which we are. And doing this really involves getting into it through the same language, the same prayers, and the same understanding. Anyone can wrestle…. but wrestling with God… really wrestling with Him as He is in all his terrible majesty surely narrows the list of candidates who can approach. And this gets back to an aspect Dixie noted on the Saints and their expanded role in Orthodoxy through both their writings and hagiographies – noting the very personal nature of their struggles and the invitation extended for us to participate in conversation (prayer) with them on that basis.

“Now, I don’t want to give the impression that becoming a Jew-by-choice has been one smooth drive down some celestial highway of transcendence. There are doubts, outright arguments with God and the little voice that keeps whispering: “Oh, come on, man, how much can one tiny strip of bacon hurt?

I loved this line (and more as well). Sounds like my side of the conversation when I visit the nutritionist… or look ahead to Lent! It’s the very much the same spirit, if not the same language heard in Orthodox conversions as well. Quoting more probably gets me in trouble, so let me encourage you to read the rest yourself. As I said, a different conversion, but at the same time, so many similarities it is really brother to so many of our own. Even reminds me of Fr. Thomas Hopko’s remark that Hebrew faith and worship in many ways is much closer to our own than either Protestant or Catholic.


  1. James, thanks for this post. I read the Jennings article last Sunday, and I remember having much the same impression as you. “Earthy energy” is a good way of putting it. I also appreciate your expression–“putting ourselves into the story,” which expresses the feel of Orthodoxy very well.

    Your last comment from Fr. Hopko reminds me of an anecdote told by a Western-rite priest several years ago. He was repeating something a bishop had mentioned to him. It seems that at ecumenical conferences, the Orthodox tended to sit over to the side chatting with the rabbis, as they had much more in common, and more to discuss with one another than with anyone else at the conference.

  2. Thanks! And it’s good to hear Fr. Tom’s comment more fully fleshed out.

  3. Well, I find it extraordinarily interesting

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