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The Authentic Nature and Goals of Orthodox Christianity*

by Archbishop Chrysostomos

Metropolitan ChrysostomosIN EASTERN ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY, a mere affirmation of belief in and a commitment to Christ, brought to fruition in an indispensable set of doctrines, are not the sine qua non of authentic Christian confession. While Orthodox Baptism, or the entrance rite of an individual into Christian life, does entail a statement of intellectual belief by the recitation of the Symbol of Faith (the Creed) and a set of fixed doctrinal beliefs, this is affirmed by a member of the community: the sponsor or Godparent (and the candidate, if an adult). But it is ultimately the Mystery (the more plenitudinous Eastern Christian word for a Sacrament) of Baptism, or φωτισμός (photismos, the Greek word for enlightenment), that activates the spiritual [noetic] faculty, opening it to the Truth of the Faith, which is expressed and symbolized in the credal statements (hence, the Symbol of Faith) and doctrines of the Church. It is, from an Orthodox perspective, not a mere intellectual commitment — however emotionally striking and fulfilling in content — and correct confession and doctrinal firmness alone that lead to Christian life; rather, a mystical experience of that life — an ontological encounter with the Divine in the cleansing and restoring waters of Baptism — unveils what is captured, but not contained, in dogma and in Scripture. Scripture and dogma, however precious and indispensable to Christian life, do not themselves contain the glory of God; they perfectly and infallibly describe that glory. It is from the Word Himself that glory and Grace are conveyed and revealed to the believer, and in dogma and theology that such revelation is taught, in the hermeneutic witness of the Church, and preserved.

According to the Eastern Christian Divines, an individual establishes, in experiencing the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Divine Revelation (which is cultivated and reinforced in Grace by way of the Mysteries), a relationship with the Archetype of the human being restored to what he or she was created to be. One finds true personhood, according to the numinous teachings of the Eastern Church, in the Theanthropic Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Perfect God and Perfect Man. In mystical union with the God-Man, the fallen person is transformed, becoming a novus homo in the household of God, a small “Jesus Christ” within Jesus Christ. For the Orthodox believer, Christianity is, above all else, a transformative experience of Truth, an ontological and noumenal encounter with God that brings together, as the fourth-century Church Father, St. Athanasios of Alexandria, expressed it, what Christ taught, what the Apostles preached, and what the Fathers preserved. Here we have the content of Truth revealed; while conveyed in word and thought, the Truth is lived and preserved in vivid Tradition, which constitutes the catholic (universal) and authentic life and activity of the Christian community. Even theology, as an ever-present axiom in Orthodox Christianity affirms, is not a sufficient thing in its intellectual form; to be true and genuine, theology must always be lived, or experienced.

Without a correct understanding [Confession] of the Messianic promise, expressed in the Eastern Church in both Orthodoxy, or correct doctrine, and Orthopraxy, or a life dedicated to the reacquisition of the divinity of man by union with God in the correct observance of the Faith, the human condition, according to the Greek Fathers, becomes a vain, relentless struggle between an inner desire for theosis (deification) and the fruitless pursuit of a meaningless world in which an immense chasm separates men and women from God. An existential tension thus marks our human lives, as existence defies ontology, imperfection prevails against perfection, and the human will and the Divine Will come into parlous conflict. We are torn between two worlds, one tangible and fanciful and the other hidden but intuitively real. Having sinned, having missed the mark, we pursue the delusions of the human will (a freedom guaranteed to us by the Creator), crushed by the poverty of what we have become and by the weighty depravity and tragedy of human life. Yet, when we encounter Christ, the Archetype of Perfect Man, the Creator in the form of His creation, within our hearts, He beckons us to union with Him and a return to what we were created to be. Bolstered, enlivened, inspired, and given hope by Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy, we rediscover what we truly are. This anagnorisis is the essence of the inner life: the hint within our souls of what can be; the fleeting perception of God that is the mystery of noetic vision; and the spiritual force that binds us to what is foolishness to the world and releases us from the folly of mundane wisdom. We experience the paradox of seeking in witless existence an ineffable God, suspended in the eschatological now, sensing internally what is already present and known but externally unseen, arcane, and distant.

* This short discussion of Orthodox Christianity is taken from Archbishop Chrysostomos’ latest monograph, The Orthodox Elements in Emily Dickinson’s Spirituality and Mysticism, published in the Monographic Supplement Series of Orthodox Tradition. [See the CTOS site http://goo.gl/tvgbMS for further details.]

Source: Orthodox Tradition (pages 41-43) Volume XXIX, Number 3 http://goo.gl/U6kDSQ

St. Ieronymos of Aegina