Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | November 26, 2012

Taught by God – Part 2

“And they will all be taught by God” John 6:45 – Part 2

Having identified that we can learn Orthodox theology only by living an Orthodox life in an Orthodox community, Boosalis proceeds in his second chapter to identify what it is that comprises theology more concretely. But immediately there’s a problem and moment that pauses: “Why am I doing this? Just what is the theology? What exactly am I getting myself into?” All good questions most of us have puzzled through ourselves or have stumped others with (our spouses) as we begin. As a start on an answer, he offers:

“Orthodox theology is primarily a spiritual process. And by ‘process’ we mean a ‘continuous action or series of events…a method of action… leading to the accomplishment of some result. More specifically, Orthodox theology is a personal process aimed at progress in prayer, which is acquired through one’s participation in the ascetical, sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.” P. 29

More than just a mouthful, it seems a fairly accurate summation which he follows with the note that what this means for the beginner is that “…the student of theology must… work on himself and on his own spiritual formation” (p. 33) …and puts his trust in those who have had the experience and accepts their teachings rather than his own ideas and opinions.” (p.35)

This is easier said than done. But if it is done, and in the writings of the saints we read that at least a number of supermen can and have done it, and written about their journeys. And in these writings we can see that others before us following this way have come to know that “Blessed is the man who knows his own weakness, because this knowledge becomes to him the foundation, the root, and the beginning of all goodness. …Before ascending to the heights of theology, we must therefore first descend into the dark abyss of our heart. This is the way of humility, one of the primary virtues that attracts the grace of the Holy Spirit.”  (p. 38) And though he doesn’t reference the writings of the saints directly, I have here because it is in these that we read the experience of those in the Church… as something actual living breathing people have concretely followed and left their trails behind for us like Hansel and Gretel in their words.

The whole point is that indeed, the student is meant to follow the path rather than simply read and think about it. For “…it is not enough, therefore, simply to talk (and read about) theology. What is required of the Orthodox student is to live it. We must transform our individual and isolated way of life and lead it into the catholic fullness of the life of the Orthodox Church, where we begin to hand ourselves over to the grace of the Holy Spirit” (p. 41). And as time progresses, “…there must be a conscious effort on the part of the theologian, not simply to call on, but to come to depend upon, the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is His guidance and His inspiration which are needed…” (p. 43). And given that our greatest interaction with the Holy Spirit lies in worship, “…outside the framework of the Divine Liturgy… it is impossible to understand Orthodox faith and theology” (p. 44). And it is in these simple phrases that the whole case for the inquirer to convert is made: It’s not about a new label or a new way of worship or new readings and new church friends, but about something far more practical and down to earth – taking the medicine for one’s soul under the care of a physician. You can’t build in the good, the non-woolly parts of Orthodoxy into your regular, comfortable ways… these ways stand on their own as a fabric that must become a new set of clothes rather than a set of patches on the old.

And I particularly liked his point that we have “to come to depend upon the grace of the Holy Spirit”  because in so much of what seems to assail us through what is often a whirlwind in conversion (and in truth those years even now…. long after) that seem to buffet us about as though driven by another source. And yet perhaps if instead we make a concerted effort to turn this process over to the Holy Spirit we may eventually find an inviting peace where we can step back from the driver’s seat, give up something of our self and what we think we’re about, our ideas on this process for one, and listen to what He has to say, follow where He leads, and walk in those things prepared for our Way. I sense that in fact this has been happening all along… it wasn’t me or about me, although at times clearly I’ve erred by making it about me or pushing in that direction, or at least sounding  as though I were in charge.  Either God’s in charge, or we’re all lost. And He knows well enough when to keep hidden and from whom what must be hidden (meaning me).

And my point in pulling out Boosalis’s familiar words here isn’t to obviate reading the book, but to note the logical conclusion that if the theologian is one who prays, and a life of prayer and progress in prayer in this life is part and parcel with becoming Orthodox, then what seems to make this journey so hard initially may be that in effect we are all asked to become theologians… or to begin on that Way. Orthodox Christianity may therefore seem to many a tough calling… and it is, but that’s our failing rather than our virtue. For if we share only the burdens, what have we done but breach our community with others by putting them off. Inadvertently or more specifically… unknowingly… this must be our intent… to pursue an Orthodoxy …still on our own terms, by ourselves or with a community of only the committed… and the rest… perhaps it’s as though we profess to love, but in effect we’re telling them to buzz off. Dunno whether that gets it done or not,  but it’s certainly not making anything easier. The task of making the hard sweet springs from and within the heart… and until it does, we must obviously still need the medicine of immortality and remain lacking.

In his third chapter, Boosalis goes on to make a number of excellent points about dogma… but you’ll have to engage those on your own. I found his fourth chapter on icons, iconoclasm, incarnation and all that equally… something you may wish to pursue as well. Again, good points. What I liked best was his conclusion… which I’ll pick up with next… but in the interim, I’m sticking close to the medicine cabinet.


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