I’ve been thinking a lot about an article I read in this month’s The Word, a publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, called “Orthodox Spirituality in an Ungodly Age.” Kevin Allen, who hosts a radio show called “Ancient Faith Today” on Ancient Faith Radio (and who has interacted with me a bit on this blog), wrote this article, and in it addresses three “Anti-Christian Trends” in our culture. The third one is
Questioning, reconsideration or challenging of tradition Christian doctrines by some who profess Christian faith (italics mine)
Well, that one hit the bulls eye. Yep, that’s me, I thought when I read it. I question. I reconsider. And maybe, I am starting to challenge.
I question whether or not the Orthodox Church is really THE only true and perfect church.
I question whether or not the Orthodox Church is right to forbid women to be clergy.
I question whether or not God really is all-knowing and all-powerful.
I question whether homosexuals can or can’t be Christians and should or should not be able to marry.
I question whether pre-marital sex is really a sin.
I question all the rules I live by and have always lived by, and if they are rules or if I am just interpreting them that way.
Allen talks about religion vs spirituality in the article, and how Americans are searching for spirituality, which is “focused on the way a person sees his own place in universe,” rather than religion, which is “concerned with God’s relationship with the universe.” (Italics mine) I get that. And I am guilty of wanting to be spiritual, but not religious. I want to fit in with my non-religious friends; most of them know I am spiritual, but I don’t want to appear to be a religious kook. I want to be able to look at my faith from a lens of doubt, and beauty, and art, and questioning, and passion, but I often feel like I’m only offered the lens of fear, guilt, and commands.
I believe in God; I believe that Jesus died and rose again to save me from sin, eternal death, and separation from Him (although really the three are synonymous to me). But lately I’ve been feeling like I’m tired of following the rules. Does Jesus really care whether or not I eat before Eucharist? Or whether or not I eat dairy? I don’t think He does. But I understand that these are manifestations of the Orthodox belief that spirit and body are not separate; I withhold things from my body as a spiritual practice in order to focus myself on Christ rather than on worldly things like . . um, food.
In his article, Allen warns that the term “spirituality” has become a synonym for self-help and self-love. It has come to mean that you can find God (or a god) within yourself; that you are God and God is you. I just read something similar to that in the book Dance of the Dissident Daughter, which says, “To embrace Goddess is simply to discover the Divine in yourself as powerfully and vividly feminine.” Can I admit that there is something deeply attractive about that line? I realize that I am NOT God (or Goddess) and am NOT divine, but oh, how I would love to discover that “powerfully and vividly feminine” spiritual part of me.
That may sound confusing; I’m female, so of course I’m feminine! Yet my spirituality has always depended on men, on male imagery and language. God the Father, Jesus the Son. My own father, who led me to accept Jesus into my heart at the altar of his church when I was six, my Uncle Mike from the mission field, all my male pastors and male youth pastors and male religion profs at college. Even the theologians and spiritual writers I’ve read through the years have been primarily men – Nouwen, Lewis, Chesterton, Hauerwas, Hopko, Schmemann. I have always lived in a Christian world, and the story of my God has almost always been defined by men.
She’s getting off topic, you’re thinking. She’s off on a feminist rage and needs to come back to the subject at hand. No, I am not enraged. Yes, I am addressing feminism. And I do so to say that right now, I am both spiritual – concerned about my own place in the universe (and in the church, and in my family, and in my community, and within myself) – and religious – concerned about God’s relationship with the universe. The fact that God created us and put on human skin to come down and save us is more important to me than whether or not God is male, or whether or not women should be priests.
However, I’m ready to meet God on my own terms. To me, spirituality is a deep awareness of one’s soul. What you find when you look inward. And if God is there, you will find Him. Spirituality involves opening your soul to receive the things that nourish and grow it. Surely I can find God in a poem, or in a blooming dogwood tree, or in my daughter’s fingers creating beautiful piano music? Can’t those things be givers of His grace? Can I find him in the words of a woman who once wrote for Guidepost, and now “lives by her own inner guidance?” Why can’t I find Him in the feminine, in the depths of my own womb, where life was created and brought forth, in the voices of the desert mothers, or in the lap of his own Mother, that baby boy Jesus, who in that moment embodies nothing but the pure and overpowering love of a son?
I realize the danger of the statement “meeting God on my own terms.” I understand that a Christian’s personal decisions and opinions should be corroborated by the church, or Christian tradition, or Scripture. Someone who murders someone and then says, “God told me to kill him” will obviously not be supported by the church or Scripture.
Still, I think about the fact that Paul offered salvation to Gentiles, who weren’t familiar with Jewish rules and traditions. They hadn’t been raised in a world of Jewish customs and teachings. They hadn’t been forced to go to the temple week after week or taught to read the Torah or forbidden to cook on the Sabbath. All it took was their willing belief, a turning of their hearts toward Christ. There is a purity to that kind of faith, one untouched by influence, unmotivated by years of religious culture.
Sometimes I feel like I need to walk away from the religious life I’ve always known so I can find God on my own, and then I’ll be able to come back.
For now, I keep questioning. And reconsidering. And challenging. And I hope that God and my church won’t see it as anti-Christian. I hope they’ll know that right now, this is my journey toward true faith, toward a place where spirituality and religion feel like one and the same.
You have been very and are very thought-full! I appreciate what you are saying here, this is hopefully only one article that you will be able to share with us concerning the subject matter. It reminded me of a quote from St. Isaac the Syrian that I read yesterday on the Ancient Christian Wisdom blog. I’ve included part of that quote below. I think you would find the article interesting as it addresses the Baylor Report on Mental Health and Religious Beliefs. I don’t think you’ll be surprised at the findings of the report.
“In love did He bring the world into existence; in love does He guide it during this its temporal existence; in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all things; in love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally comprised. And since in the New World the Creator’s love rules over all rational nature, the wonder at His mysteries that will be revealed then will captive to itself the intellect of all rational beings whom He has created so that they might have delight in Him, whether they be evil or whether they be just. With this design did He bring them into existence, even though they among themselves have made, after their coming into being, this distinction between the just and the wicked. Even though this is so, nevertheless in the Creator’s design there is none, from among all who were created and who have come into being—that is, every rational nature—who is to the front or to the back of God’s love. Rather, He has a single equal love which covers the whole extent of rational creation, all things whether visible or invisible: there is no first place or last place with Him in this love for any single one of them.”
— from here: http://ancientchristianwisdom.wordpress.com/2013/04/22/the-quality-of-our-thoughts-and-the-one-thought-that-really-matters-the-fathers-and-the-baylor-report-on-mental-health-and-religious-beliefs/
Margie, Thank you for these comments! I love the quote from St. Isaac. It is wonderful to think of God and all His work as perfect love. I found the article really thought-provoking. Maybe my idea of God is judgemental rather than engaged! Hmm . . . lots of food for thought.
All of us at one time or another struggle with the same questions you have. The only advice I have is to sit down with your Bible and study it and be open to God showing you the way. We all struggle with what is going on in our Churches, but God can and will guide you if you let Him. You have been through a lot and you probably have a lot of questions for God, but you will find out the answers when it is time for you to go to Heaven. I still believe the way the Nazarene Church does, but I do not like the way their services have changed. Even though we go to a Cumberland Presbyterian Church our membership is still at the Nazarene Church. For now we are where we believe God wants us and will stay until He leads us in a different direction. Much love to you as you find answers to your questions, and you let God lead you.
Karen, thank you for your encouragement. I think the Nazarene Church has changed a lot in the past decade. However, I still miss it sometimes.
So the key question here is how do we know what is true? If you cannot trust the Church, and the Scriptures that the Church has canonized, then you really don’t have any way of knowing that Christ really did rise from the dead to save you from sin, eternal death, and separation from Him. You don’t have any way to know what sin is that you are being saved from, or what it would mean to be saved from sin. You either end up as a Unitarian Universalist (or moving on to a new religion or no religion at all), or you have to have something that your faith is based on, aside from personal opinion.
Yes, as I said, I realize I’m in dangerous waters here. I’m questioning right now, and I hope my church is big enough to handle that. I think God is.
What would signify that your church is not big enough to handle your questioning? Do you have a particular form of handling in mind?
The Church is OK with answering questions, however, if you want to remain in the Church, you have to be prepared to accept the answers the Church gives.
Why do you question whether or not the Church is what we confess in the Creed?
Why do you question whether or not women can be clergy? As you mentioned, the Nazarene Church has always allowed women to be ordained, and yet in all the time I was a Nazarene, I never saw a woman who was the pastor of a Church. Back in the early days of the Nazarene Church there was spurt of women pastors, but it didn’t last. The reason for that is that being a pastor is a fatherly role, just like being a Matushka is a motherly role. The Salvation Army probably has the highest percentage of women clergy (because spouses are required to have the same rank in the SA), but in reality, they usually function a lot like a priest’s wife would in a parish.
Why do you question whether or not gays should be married? The Scriptures and Tradition are very clear on the subject. No one would have even suggested it seriously 30 years ago.
Why do you question whether pre-marital sex is a sin? The traditional word for that kind of behavior is “fornication”, and the Scriptures and the Tradition have been very clear on that subject. The problem in recent years is really that we are extending adolescence into the late 20’s these days, and people are postponing marriage until they are in there 30’s… but mother nature doesn’t run our schedule, it runs on its own schedule… and so this is an unhealthy trend, but the problem is not with the teachings of the Church.
Why do you question whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing?
Where do you believe we should turn for the answers to these questions?
And to be clear, when I ask “why do you question…?” I am not saying that you shouldn’t have a question, I mean what causes you to question these things in particular.
And as for the question of whether or not God cares if you fast before communion or eat dairy products during a fast. The Church does not suggest that there is anything inherently evil in eating. If you were elder or infirm and needed to eat before communion, or else risk passing out or would have to skip some medication, you could easily get a blessing to not observe that fast. And the elderly and infirm are likewise not expected to strictly keep the seasonal fasts, though many do anyway.
There are several reasons why we fact, but one big one is that by saying no to certain foods at certain times we develop our ability to say “No” to temptation. If we can’t learn to say “No” to a cheese burger, it is unlikely that we will learn to say “No” to more serious temptations when they hit us.
Very well written. I appreciate your honesty. Just don’t get so discouraged with the Church as a whole that you leave it. The Church is Christ’s bride, not the Christian. Those Gentile believers who knew no laws or traditions DID emphasize the meeting of themselves together regularly. To be Christian is to be a part of the Body. You can’t separate them.
Thank you for your encouragement and thoughts. Right now I do still attend church.
BIG KUDOS to you, Karissa. When I read that article in The Word a few days ago, I had a very similar reaction, and almost blogged about it, but something held me back. I think I was waiting for your article here, which says many things that I was thinking, but says them so much better, and with more restraint. (yes) I had a strong reaction to Allen calling “Questioning, reconsideration or challenging of tradition Christian doctrines” an “anti-Christian trend.” What is anti-Christian about questioning? About doubt? Does God doesn’t want us to turn off our brains and drink whatever Kool-Aid is offered along the way? You are point on with your recounting of the patriarchal dominance in the Orthodox Church, and I have been greatly helped by Sue Monk Kidd’s book you mentioned, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter. Her embrace of the feminine divine may differ from our embrace of the Theotokos, but I think we’re after the same thing.
Your beautiful description of the differences in religion and spirituality–and why we need BOTH–was brilliant. It gave clarity to things I’ve been thinking but haven’t been able to put into words.
What a gift this post is to me today. Thank you so much.
Ooops – should have proofed that… Does God want us… not Does God doesn’t want us…. sorry bout that.
I’m glad this was helpful – it took me about three hours to write this blog post, which is not typical, but I wanted to get it right – or as close to right as I could. I still get scared of who will read stuff like this, both in the OC and in the Nazarene Church. Still, I’m trying to speak my truth as much as possible (without offending a great too many people in the process).
I don’t plan on going quite as far as Sue Monk Kidd did, but so many parts of that book spoke to me. I think that the OC’s focus on the Theotokos and women saints is helpful in that journey toward feminine spirituality. There was a passage in that book where Kidd was at some monastery where the women were only allowed in the balcony, and she was hit with feeling both frustration at the church’s mistreatment of women throughout the centuries and the joy that came from the melodic chanting, prayers, and reverence of women saints. I feel the same way! In the Nazarene church I grew up in, women could be ordained, but there was little emphasis on liturgy or tradition or beauty or the saints. I guess no church is perfect.
I have some of those questions too. I’ve read a few things that are interesting and helpful, at least theoretically:
In fact, I’ll try to paste that last one below. Blessings on your struggle, Karissa!
Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh
On being true to oneself
12th August 1990
In the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.
Time and again I am asked by people on a concrete occasion ‘What is the Will of God for me now, in the nearest future?’ And I always refuse to speak in God’s own Name, because I believe that all I, or any priest, can do is to stand before God in awe, and say, ‘Lord, Thou art the Truth, Thou art Life, Thou are also the Way — teach this person; be to this person the Way, enlighten this person with the truth, and bring him to such plenitude of life as no one can either convey or give’.
And yet there are things which can be done. Each of us is a freeman of God, as St. Paul said clearly, He says there was a time when we all were slaves of Satan, slaves of our passions, of our fears, slaves of all the things that press on all sides and do not allow us to be true people. In Christ freedom is granted; not licence, but the freedom to be ourselves, the freedom to grow into the fullness of the stature which God has dreamt for us, to grow into fullness that will make us truly living members of the Body of Christ, partakers of the Divine Nature.
On whatever step of our spiritual development we are, the first thing which is required of us is that we should be true to ourselves: not to try to be anyone except the person we are; not to try to ape any behaviour, to force ourselves into any mould in heart, in mind, in will which could be a lie before God, to lie to ourselves, a deception for others. The first rule is to be true to ourselves; and to be true with all the integrity, all the passion, all the joy of which we are capable. And what does this mean? Apart from what I said a moment ago, it means that we must find who we are not only socially, but at another level. And to do this, we can read the Gospel which is an image of what a true human being is; not a book of commandments, of orders, as it were, given by God, ‘Do this, and you will be right in My sight’ — no: it is a picture of what a real human being thinks, feels, does and is. Let us look into the Gospel as one looks into a mirror, and we will discover that in so many ways we are a distorted image but that in a few ways perhaps, we are a true human being already, at least potentially. Let us mark those passages of which we can say, like Luke and Cleophas on the way to Emmaeus: Does not my heart burn within me when I hear, when I read these words? How beautiful they are! How true! That is life!.. And if you find one passage or another to which you respond this way, rejoice; because at that point God has reached you at the deepest level of your being, revealed to you who you truly are; but at the same time revealed to you Who He truly is, shown you that you and He are in harmony; that if you only become what you already, potentially, truly are, you will become His like, the like of God; a true undistorted image — at least in one or two things.
Then there is another move; if we want to be truly ourselves, we must remember that God does not expect us to be what we are not, but what we are. And that we can stand before God, and say to Him, ‘Lord! I have read this and that in the Gospel; I understand it with my mind; I believe in my heart that it must be true; but it does not set my mind aglow, my heart on fire; it does not stir my will, it does not transform me yet. Accept me as I am! I will change — but for the moment I cannot respond to such a commandment, to such an example. There is a passage so beautiful, to me, in the writings of St. Mark the Ascetic in which he says, ‘If God stood before you, and said, Do this, and do that — and your heart could not answer ‘Amen’ — don’t do it; because God does not need your action: He needs your consent, and harmony between Him and you’.
Let us therefore try when we ask ourselves in an attempt to find out what the Will of God is for us, not in the absolute, but now: where do I already stand? What can I already now be and do, and do it wholeheartedly with God? — because in the end, the aim of our spiritual life, of our life and our faith in Christ does not consist in being drilled into doing one thing rather than the other; it is to establish between God and us a relationship of true friendship, of a joy of mutual freedom, and within this freedom, within this friendship, in response to God’s love, to God’s respect for us, to the faith He has in us, to the hope He has vested in us, and say ‘This person has understood that he is not a slave, that he is My friend — and He is our friend. What a joy! And it is a gift of God, which we can give Him as we received it from Him! Amen.
Sorry – your comment got stuck in Pending for some reason! I really like this part that you posted here. I will check out the other two links, also. Thanks so much!
Thank you, Karissa! I also sent you links via email. I’d be interested to know what you think.