Soul Differences Between Orthodoxy and Western Traditions
Many people who have been involved in churches of both eastern and western traditions sense that there is a major difference between the Christianity of the East and the West, but they cannot quite put their finger on this difference.
We can observe clearly that Roman Catholicism has tended to add practices and doctrines to the faith that we in the East don’t accept, like the teaching on the primacy of the pope or the Immaculate Conception and/or the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We can also observe rather easily that Protestantism in all its forms has tended to reduce the faith to the lowest common denominator, and to strip away essentials – e.g., sacraments – or to reduce the gospel to “I believe in Jesus Christ.” We also observe the fractiousness of Protestantism and wonder what understanding of “church” these folks must hold. But these observations, while bearing some truth, do not convey the inner sense of the distinction between Orthodoxy and western forms of the faith.
The core of the difference, cone comes to sense, is found in the teaching on sin and salvation. In the West, from the time of Augustine on through Anselm and to Aquinas, a view of sin developed which you do not find in the early church or, for that matter, in the scriptures themselves in the way it got expressed. In the Bible you find a number of different images that attempt to express, in language we can understand, how God and humanity come back into relationship through Christ.
The image that developed in the west is grounded in legal metaphors: God’s sense of justice was wronged by human sin, therefore a debt had to be paid. Since humanity was incapable of paying the debt, God sent his Son to pay it on our behalf. Now when you press this image just a little bit, you see that it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster, because God – if he is God – could surely have come up with a better plan than this. Secondly, it robs us of any sense of free will. We are out of the equation: the transaction is between God, Christ, and the Devil. We can only accept or reject it. This transaction, by the way, is called “forensic justification” in the western tradition.
But let’s back up one step: how did this predicament come about in the first place? Western theology, from the time of Augustine, held to a view of original sin that is actually inherited sin. Adam and Eve were the first couple, and they sinned, and their sin was passed down through the generations, so that when you are born, you inherit the guilt of their sin. This guilt had to be paid off, and hence the theory of atonement expressed in the previous paragraph.
Orthodoxy never bought this idea in the way it was developed in the West. We understand that everyone is born into a world of sin, but we would understand (e.g.) Psalm 50(51) differently when it says, “behold I was conceived in iniquity and in sin did my mother bear me.” For the west this verse always meant that sex itself was the culprit for bringing sin from one generation to the next, hence concupiscence becomes the major manifestation of that culpability: we are lustful and this proves that sex is bad. Orthodoxy understands this verse, and the rest of the biblical tradition, differently: we are conceived into iniquity, and we are born into a sinful world. We cannot avoid this immersion, but we do not inherit guilt. We are, each of us, responsible for our own lives; we are called upon to “work out (our) own salvation in fear and trembling.”
But, then, what is sin? Sin is transgression (crossing forbidden boundaries), sin is callousness (becoming insensitive to others), and sin is “missing the mark” (the meaning of the principal term in Greek). Thus sin is an action, whether or commission or omission, as the old saying goes. Sin is not a state of being; it is significant that we commune our baptized children without saying, in the distribution formula, that they receive “for the remission of sins,” because until one is old enough to distinguish right from wrong we cannot speak of sinful actions.
In the Orthodox tradition, we say that evil is, ultimately, non-existent. The forces at work that turn you to evil or good are within you, and while they are illusory they are powerful, and they manifest themselves in our choices. At every turn, we have decisions to make about our responsible behavior. (This truth, by the way, has caused some of us who are philosophically inclined, to say that Orthodoxy is the principal form of Christian existentialism.) We are not “totally depraved,” as some in the Western tradition would have us be; that is a prescription for helplessness and victimization. We are maimed and indeed our reason has been blurred, but we hold that with the aid of the Holy Spirit we can regain our senses, so to speak. The Holy Spirit becomes available to us through baptism and Chrismation, where we are “sealed by the Gift of the Holy Spirit.” In turn we develop spiritual discernment and depth through the Spirit’s aid.
Where does sin come from? Here again the Orthodox tradition differs from the development of the West. In our tradition, death is the great enemy. This is biblical: Paul says as much in I Corinthians 15. Paul says, also, as Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death,” which can be understood in a different way from the billboards on the side of two-lane blacktops in states across America. Our understanding is that death itself pays off in human sinfulness. Because we are going to come to a physical end, we clutch at those things which appear – though they are an illusion – to give us a hedge against death: chief among these are material possessions, but the concept also covers the search for personal supremacy and sexual prowess and a host of other attitudes and behaviors. These represent the dissipation of the mind in its frantic search for substitute salvations.
The freedom the gospel proclaims is, thus, freedom from death. The promise of the resurrection has consequences for this life. The early Christians understood clearly that they could work together with God for the sanctification of their lives because death had been conquered. The Orthodox tradition teaches that we can overcome the passions, which are at the heart of the grasping we do to try to “bypass” death, through immersion in the sacramental and ascetic life of the community. We call this lifelong process theosis, in accordance with the understanding first voiced by St Irenaeus and later by St Athanasius: God became human in order that humans might become divine. The biblical source for this teaching is II Peter 1:4 “we become participants in the divine nature.” (This does not mean we become God; that is impossible. We become godly, to use the old English word. St Cyril of Alexandria spoke well when he said that we receive by grace what Christ was by nature.)
We are in this together. Death has been overcome for the human community, but we are the spearhead of that community. We are the announcers of that victory; that is what mission is all about. We are connected to all others, and we are not going to be saved as individuals alone; we are saved in community. This knowledge in our minds and our bodies is the engine for Christian compassion and social responsibility.
When this way of understanding sin and salvation truly enters into the fiber of your being, it becomes, over time and with contemplation, a major change from the way of the west. Each person will feel this differently, but it seems to me that the first wave has to do with wanting to experience all the resources the church has to offer in this lifelong search for godliness in concert with others. Thus the sacramental life makes more sense than ever before; the communion of saints living and departed becomes a reality rather than an idea; there is reason to explore the ascetic disciplines of the church (prayer, fasting, almsgiving) and to embrace them as fully as you are able; and the general sense of your connection to God takes on new depth.