Orthodoxy Among the Pragmatists (a response to the Ochlophobist)

Owen White, the author of a once-popular once-Orthodox Christian blog The Ochlophobist, has returned to blogging after a long hiatus with a post detailing his reasons for leaving Orthodoxy. He asserts, in addition, that he believes his reasons for leaving Orthodoxy are in concert with those of other apostates with whom he has communicated. Although, of course, his post should be read in full if one desires to most completely understand his reasoning and his articulation of that reasoning in his attempts to create a narrative framework for the fairly frequent movement of Americans into and out of the Orthodox Church, he does offer this succinct summary, upon which my own commentary will focus, in the course of his explanations:

I left because I came to believe that the practices and peculiar beliefs it [the Orthodox Church] espouses simply do not achieve the results it asserts correspond to those right beliefs and practices.  I witnessed, and eventually acknowledged, that the vast majority of people I saw attempting to embrace Orthodox asceticism in good faith did not become more holy, more human, better people, etc. 

In his recent (and wonderful) book The Cave and the Light, Arthur Herman points out that it was specifically American philosophers who developed the peculiarly American philosophy of pragmatism and that this movement in many ways embodies thought processes already present in the American mindset well before its explication by William James and others. The central assertion of pragmatism is its position on epistemology: in short, that which is useful is that which is true. This is, as Herman correctly identifies, precisely the American mindset, exhibited in the adventurous and innovative American spirit. We are, and long have been, a nation of go-getters with can-do attitudes. If something works, we pick it up; if something doesn’t work, we drop it. What matters is what works. I believe this is a positive character trait incubated within those raised in the context of American culture and society. It allowed us to break free of the stale and decrepit political and economic systems of our European and African homelands long before those European and African homelands were able to do so. It created a nation which leads the world in invention, discovery, and production.

I am myself, as an American, very much a pragmatist. This applies in matters of faith as well. As an American in the pragmatic tradition, I think it very important to understand and examine the stated goals of a particular religious system and whether those goals are attained through the faith and practice therein prescribed. One obvious example might be Transcendental Meditation, which makes the easily verifiable (or, rather, easily dismiss-able) claim that its most advanced practitioners achieve the ability to levitate, an ability they refer to as “Yogic Flying.” American that I am, when I encounter a claim such as this, I investigate. I want to see scientific studies which corroborate such claims. Even more importantly, I want to see this for myself. The result, in the case Yogic Flying, is that one sees (and so the scientists also concluded that it is) little more than jumping with one’s legs crossed. It may be a great way to gain leg muscle, but it is, alas, far from the acquisition of a special spiritual state or miraculous powers.

Before and while coming into Orthodoxy, I, generally unconsciously, applied these same principles to the Orthodox Church. Any philosophy has a certain sort of ideal man in mind, into whose mold it seeks to shape its adherents. Islam has the obvious example of wishing all to become like the perfect man, Muhammad. The Hadith include not only his sayings, but even information about Muhammad’s daily habits from how he talked and walked to how he relieved himself, all to serve as an example for the Muslim to imitate. The first question that must be asked, then, of any philosophy is: what sort of man does this philosophy wish me to become? And, of course, the related question without which the answer to the previous question is incomplete: Why?

Mr. White avers that Orthodoxy wishes us to become more holy, more human, better people, etc.” Most of his terminology is too vague to work with, and I believe the vagueness in his statements is the result of Mr. White’s own mental vagueness on the point, implied by the unnecessary “etc.” at the close of the sentence. Let us first dismiss the most easily dismissed: Orthodoxy emphatically does not wish us to become “better people.” C.S. Lewis once, with his usual erudition, made the same point about Christianity more generally. The purpose of the Christian life is not to become a “better person.” The purpose of the Boy Scouts is to make you a “better person.” While you may (and hopefully will) become a better person through your practice of Christianity, this is largely incidental.

To be honest, one might wonder just what a “better person” is anyhow. Is a “better person” a nicer person? A person with better manners? A more polite person? While the Enlightenment fixation on politeness and the Victorian preoccupation with etiquette are charming (even when I eat alone I conscientiously avoid putting my elbows on the table, sucker that I am for decorum), they are hardly the sort of thing which leads one to turn to any particular religious system. Enough on this.

Mr. White comes much closer to the truth of Orthodoxy’s claims in his assertion that it desires of us to become “more holy, more human.” These words seem to me to be accurate summaries of the statements of two outstanding Orthodox theologians of the past two centuries. St. Seraphim of Sarov once famously summarized the purpose of the Christian life thus: “The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” In other words, it is to become, in Mr. White’s words, “more holy.” And Fr. Dumitru Staniloae echoes Mr. White’s contention that the purpose of Orthodoxy is to make us “more human” in his own summary of the purpose of the Christian life: “The glory to which man is called is that he should grow more godlike by growing ever more human.” We have, then, discerned Orthodoxy’s stated purpose for the lives of its adherents. The sort of man into which Orthodoxy would like to mold us is one who is “more holy, more human” — who has acquired the Holy Spirit and who has grown more like God in becoming more human. This goal, in the technical terminology of Orthodox theology, is called theosis, or deification. It is to attain unity with God and to “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4).

In the world of professional pragmatists (as opposed to us amateurs-via-American-identity), perhaps the best-known and most important application of the pragmatic epistemological principle to the world of religion is Willliam James’ Varieties of Religous Experience. In that book, James examines the reports of mystical experiences of the divine by adherents of certain faiths. His conclusions are helpful here. If, as most of the major religious traditions of the world claim, the direct experience of God is the highest end of man, the most important experience that any individual can attain and the intended purpose of mankind as a whole, all other considerations are secondary.

In his short article “Why I ditched Buddhism,” John Hogan explains that he abandoned Zen Buddhism because of the wild behavior of so many Zen masters, a tradition which Zen adherents celebrate. Bodhidharma, the founding figure of Zen Buddhism, for example, is famous for having cut off his own eyelids to prevent himself from falling asleep while meditating. Zen literature is rife with stories of masters who behaved in excessively immoral ways, abused their students, and otherwise acted bizarrely and, so to speak, impolitely. Hogan, unable to digest all of this, left the Buddhist practice he had adopted. The proper pragmatist, however, would praise the Zen Buddhists’ nirvana-or-nothin’ attitude, if indeed these practices, in spite of their apparent abrasiveness, do accomplish their stated goal (enlightenment/nirvana) and this goal is what we (should) desire.

So, should we desire the goal of Orthodoxy? Should we desire theosis? I believe so, and the proof seems to be in the human experience itself. Human beings seem to universally desire a connection with the transcendent. One can see this not only in the great mystical traditions of the world, present in nearly every culture of every time period, but also in the production and appreciation of art and poetry. Humans seek the sublime. Even science and mathematics begin with awe at the wonders of the created order, and, therefore, one with a coherent metaphysics might argue, at the wonders of its supreme author. The highest function and end of the human being is mystical experience, unity with the divine. 

And Christianity, and Orthodoxy in particular, is the mystical religion par excellence. The other great religious traditions of the world (with, perhaps, the exception of Buddhism) have developed their mystical systems incidentally. Hinduism, for example, began as a set of disparate but related tribal religious systems. Hindu mysticism arose within the context of a widespread dissatisfaction with the established formalities of these religions and the vision of man and the cosmos offered by them. The result was a complex mystical tradition later integrated, often haphazardly and often as a means by which to establish official control over this mystical element, into the framework of the tribal religious systems. Christianity, on the other hand, was a mystical religion from its inception, emphatically asserting as its central truth claim that “God became man that man might become God.” 

If theosis, then, is what a human being should desire, the next question that must be answered is do the practices of Orthodox Christianity actually lead to this goal? Mr. White claims they do not. He says that his experience, which he spends some time elucidating in his blog post, is that the practices prescribed for Orthodox Christians to attain their goal do not lead to this goal and even sometimes seem to lead those who practice them further away from this goal. He also exhibits an aversion to many of these practices in themselves, echoing John Hogan in his condemnation of the eccentricities of the Zen masters. The proper pragmatist, however, balks at the statements of Mr. White and Mr. Hogan on this point. The proper pragmatist is not deterred by the strangeness or impoliteness of the method; he is interested only in its ability to attain the desire results. If a friend were to tell you in all seriousness that jumping off of certain cliff will magically make you young again, the rational response is not to immediately scoff at the notion; the rational response is to invite him to demonstrate. 

Does the Orthodox Church, then, provide such demonstrations? Does it have examples or case studies which one may investigate to confirm its claims? Indeed, this is precisely what the many saints of the Orthodox Church are. They are the examples, the demonstrations, and the case studies, painted on the walls of every Orthodox temple for each of us to examine and choose to imitate (or not). The saints are those who attained the goal which we all desire to attain. They are those who have experienced theosis. The cases are too numerous and the nuances and intricacies of each case too personal (dare I say peculiar?) to examine at any length here. The short of it, however, is this: many of the saints were not “better people” in the modern sense of the phrase as used by Mr. White as a result of their immersion in the ascetic practices of Orthodoxy. There were saints who were cantankerous, saints who were bizarre, saints who were rude, and, yes, even saints who were sinners (in fact, they all were — and recognizing such of oneself is the first step to sainthood). What each of them experienced, however, is the unsurpassable experience of the presence of the living God. While this might not have made them “better people,” it undoubtedly made them “more holy, more human.” I leave it to the reader to investigate for himself and discover whether this is affirmed in the plethora of accounts of their lives and deeds. In his recent masterpiece of modern philosophical-religious thinking within the context of Orthodox Christianity, David Bentley Hart eloquently articulated an observation I have made, though less eloquently, on many occasions: “In my experience,” he says, “those who make the most theatrical display of demanding ‘proof’ of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God.” When pressed by the Holy Inquisition to deny his claims concerning the discovery of hitherto unobserved heavenly bodies and the implications of the motions of these bodies for cosmology more generally, Galileo invited his accusers to take a look through his “perspicillum” (that is, his telescope) and so see for themselves. They refused and condemned him as a liar. Do not be among them. If what you desire is to confirm or deny the claims of the Orthodox Church, observe the models and, like the mad scientist who drinks the vial of his own experimental solution, try them for yourself. The Buddha once told his disciples (as recorded in the Kalama Sutta):

Now, … don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to welfare and to happiness’ — then you should enter and remain in them.

The sentiments of the Buddha in this wise statement are quite similar to those of St. Thomas Aquinas, that monumental figure in the history of European thought. There are two ways (here Aquinas followed an early Christian tradition first evidenced in the Didache and almost certainly borrowed from its Jewish forebears): there is a way that is out of harmony with the divine will and its imprint upon the cosmos (natural law) and there is a way that is in harmony with this divine will and its imprinted in the created order. The means by which one might discern which of these paths one is strolling down is to use the gauge of his own happiness. This is happiness, not in the modern senses of giddiness or delight in bodily well being, but in a more complete and full sense. It is the joy of the many martyrs throughout history who have sung hymns, prayed beautiful prayers, and even danced in the midst of their sufferings. “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).

If the problem, then, is not that the practice of Orthodoxy fails to live up to the theory, why did Mr. White leave the Orthodox Faith? Why did he not experience the joy of the martyrs? Why did he not make headway down the river to theosis? The answer lies in the statement which precedes the statements from his blog post I quoted at the beginning of this post. He says there: 

I still have no problem communing in an Orthodox parish, though I also commune in Catholic parishes, on the very rare event that I commune …

I believe that the issues which divide the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox communions are insignificant, trivial and easily resolved. I am in the camp, a rather large camp within Orthodoxy, which believes that a union could be accomplished tomorrow between the two sets of churches without the need for either to change its faith or practice. For that matter, I believe the same is true of unity between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, with only a few exceptions. With that said, I would never dream of communing in an Oriental Orthodox parish until such a union is accomplished. My bishop, Archbishop Nikon, the locum tenens of the Diocese of the South in the Orthodox Church in America, is not in communion with the bishops of the Oriental Orthodox Church. I am, therefore, not in communion with them. In other words, I have submitted myself to the Church and the hierarch she has placed over me. Mr. White, on the other hand, even having “left” Orthodoxy, and condemning essential elements of its faith and practice, here admits communing at Orthodox parishes as well as at Roman Catholic parishes. Who is his bishop? Who is his spiritual father? To whom has he submitted himself and entrusted the care of his soul? Only to himself. At the heart of Mr. White’s apostasy, as with all apostasy, is self-will.

St. Augustine of Hippo, in his On Christian Doctrine (Bk. II, Ch. 7) explains the movement of a soul from unbelief to unity with God as a seven step process. He begins with this:

First of all, then, it is necessary that we should be led by the fear of God to seek the knowledge of His will, what He commands us to desire and what to avoid. Now this fear will of necessity excite in us the thought of our mortality and of the death that is before us, and crucify all the motions of pride as if our flesh were nailed to the tree. Next it is necessary to have our hearts subdued by piety, and not to run in the face of Holy Scripture, whether when understood it strikes at some of our sins, or, when not understood, we feel as if we could be wiser and give better commands ourselves. We must rather think and believe that whatever is there written, even though it be hidden, is better and truer than anything we could devise by our own wisdom.

The first step, then, according to St. Augustine is precisely what we have identified. It is the existential thirst for meaning, transcendence and fulfillment. The second step is to be “subdued by piety,” to submit oneself and not “feel as if we could be wiser and give better commands ourselves.” Until this preliminary step into the Christian life is accomplished, no further progress is possible. Self-will blocks the entrance deeper in and further up to God because it demands control. Until this control is relinquished, one is unable to cooperate with God. Though he might fast and pray and attend the liturgies of the Church, he does this all out of a sense of his own duty rather than being motivated by authentic submission to the will of God. This is the reason that the Orthodox Church prescribes that those entering upon the spiritual life must seek the guidance of an elder, one who is more experienced than themselves, and must submit themselves to the will of their elder and their bishop.

Before I joined the Army, I had never shot a rifle. During Basic Training, one of the greatest challenges I faced was learning how to shoot properly. I did what seemed right to me, based on my own sense of things, and failed miserably each time. It was only when I finally gave up and began to apply the counterintuitive guidance of my drill sergeant that I finally found myself hitting target after target. For the rest of my eight years in the military, I never qualified anything less than expert (hitting 36 or more out of 40 targets) on rifle marksmanship.

If theosis is what we desire, the way has been demonstrated to us and is open for us to follow. We must, however, be willing to follow.



  1. This post was certainly cringe inducing for me (not in a bad way, mind you). As I read it the thought kept going through my mind – “5-6 years ago I could have written this exact post.” That impulse to defend Team Orthodox Triumph™ from all outside attack was once strong in me as well.

    I know the game backwards and forwards. One of the *nice* things about theological and ecclesial discussions is that the potential for framing things is essentially endless. You can take a text, and parse it via any number of frames, and this gives you no shortage of opportunity to posture your response in a way that makes it seem that there is something essential that your interlocutor has missed or left unsaid, with regard to his own position or the way in which he is looking at a given body of knowledge/texts/phenomena.

    So, sure, James & pragmatism. Those who have read me for years will know that I have pondered and written extensively about the fact that folks like you and me are simply unable to come at these issues in a way that bypasses major streams of American thought and intuition. No matter how hard we might want to totally invest ourselves in our roleplaying gigs with the Society of Theological & Eccesiological Anachronism, when it comes down to it we think, feel, and act as late modern Americans.

    So, yes, sure.

  2. – cont'd –

    I hemmed and hulled over responding to this as neither of us is going to convince the other, and, indeed, neither of us even has that intent, but in the event folks read this blog I will respond to a few points.

    First, with regard to your parsing of this bit:

    “I left because I came to believe that the practices and peculiar beliefs it [the Orthodox Church] espouses simply do not achieve the results it asserts correspond to those right beliefs and practices. I witnessed, and eventually acknowledged, that the vast majority of people I saw attempting to embrace Orthodox asceticism in good faith did not become more holy, more human, better people, etc.”

    The post that I posted was originally intended as a comment on a thread, as I note. The purpose of that comment was not to polemicize against Orthodoxy, but rather was more of an apologetic with regard to people who leave Orthodoxy – I did not like how they were caricatured in the original post. My noting why I left is in a specific context – that of a response to a post which made certain assertions and certain inferences regarding people who leave Orthodoxy. Within that context, it really doesn’t matter whether my reasons are actually objective or actually testable or even well-constructed, what matters is whether or not my readers believe I did my due diligence, and made every good faith effort to be objective, reasonable, and so forth. My only purpose was to show that my reasons don’t neatly correspond to the patterns presented as common in the post I was responding to. Of course I was vague. I was writing a long post to begin with, and getting precise in what was essentially a side note could have doubled or tripled the length of the post, as ascesis/theosis and their discontents are not sophomore level matters.

  3. – cont'd –

    The post I was responding to was posted on the blog of a dear friend whom I have known for years. It was posted there by a mutual friend of ours who has been an interlocutor of mine for several years. These folks know me fairly well. They know my intellectual pursuits, and a fair amount of my spiritual/ecclesial history. I don’t need to go into great detail or into great precision here with them because we have been down these paths so many times before. Remember that this is a blog venue and not a peer reviewed journal. A lot gets truncated and abbreviated.

    I understand why you take my passage which I quote above and make the assertion that I state that Orthodoxy teaches that it’s asceticism properly embraced will make for “more holy, more human, better people, etc.” Fair enough. I certainly infer that in the passage. However that inference is natural but not necessary in those lines, and I don’t state that outright. My longtime readers know that I think that the whole concept of theosis is deplorably vague to the point of it being almost useless, and that to measure the value of theosis we inevitably revert to whatsoever measures we find suitable. For me, in the vague terms – “more holy, more human, better people” work just fine for that context at hand. Elsewhere I have used Pauline lists of the fruits of the spirit. Of course in using the term “better” here I recall Fr. Stephen Freeman’s oft made assertion that Orthodoxy doesn’t intend on making anyone better. But I find all that silly semantics that amount to nothing more than masturbatory spiritual writing for spiritual catharsis seekers. “Better persons” is vague, but it can mean “more oriented toward the good,” or even “less of an asshole than I was before.”

    So we have plenty of examples of saints who were assholes, and were not nice, and so forth. And I too once relished in the posturing of how messy and earthy this is. We then have to hold these as a paradox with regard to the prayer of St. Ephraim, and, well, a whole lot of monastic and spiritual literature, and a lot of the New Testament, and so forth. And that is fine, and that is, I learned, a part of the Orthodox game, we apply certain standards to certain situations and not to others (not to pick on the Orthodox here, everyone does this in various and sundry ways – it is part and parcel with having a human intellect). The path of theosis means (in part, but in necessary part) an inward and (ultimately) external embrace of humility, and kindness, and dispassion, and mercy, and vigilant generosity of heart and spirit, and so on and so forth, except when the Church puts the theosis stamp on someone who isn’t that at all. Still theosis though, paradoxically, somehow, because we say so, and if you don’t see it you probably are just ruled by self-will and don’t have the requisite phronema.

  4. – cont'd –

    Which brings us to your ultimate proof – the saints. This is surely one of the most common proofs of Orthodoxy used in America today, if not the most used. And I agree with you that even if 99% of Orthodox are SOBs, a coherent argument can be made that if the saints achieved what the Church states (and/or infers) that they achieved, then the gig is still a good one (we will set aside the argument that if this is the case then it sure seems that God might/must hate nearly all of humanity). You, like any good Orthodox fideist, trust the Orthodox Church on this matter. I do not. I see no necessary correlation between a person being canonized in the Orthodox Church and their having achieved theosis (in any reasonably useable meaning of that word). I think, for instance, that St. Nikolaj Velimirović (so popular with American Orthodox, not nearly as popular with Serbs in Serbia) was a deplorable human being. He wrote some beautiful, profound things. There are some hierarchs here in the States whom I could see being canonized should the ecclesio-political chips fall the right ways, say an Archbishop Dmitri (in your OCA South before his repose), or even a Met Jonah (also, once of your archdiocese), both who wrote and spoke some wonderful things, both with no shortage of personal gravitas, but both with skeletons in their closets as well as publicly known “issues” that should leave a reasonable humane person inclined to think “if that is theosis, no thanks,” unless one plays with theosis like dispensationalists play with the soteriological moment in individual spiritual lives – that it is basically a mysticalish trump card that gets one out of anything and everything so long as you have it. In the end, it became clear to me that functionally, with regard to the saints, their use as proofs of theosis and the effectiveness of Orthodoxy is generally more of a tribal/political operation than one that is primarily spiritual – though I have no doubt that for many earnest converts in the U.S. they are appropriated in a manner that is in good faith meant to be spiritual. I feel sorry for those folks, including my own family members still in the grips of that delusion. My favorite Orthodox are those who operate on the assumption (or even assertion) that all or most of that is triumphalist bunk. I count a couple score of those among my friends.

    As for my communing, thank you for your concern. You may well know that Catholics do not view sacramental participation in Orthodox churches in the same way most Orthodox view participation in Catholic sacraments. Yes, many Orthodox find the Catholic position here infuriating and ever so heretical. In any event, both Orthodox and Catholic priests aware of my current situation (which involves immediate family members who are still Orthodox) have told me to continue as I am doing. I realize this will not comfort many, as these clerics are priests not bishops and their positions are just so, so wrong in light of certain subsets of Society of Theological & Eccesiological Anachronism rules, but, alas, I am a lowly, simple man who doesn’t view himself as superior in orientation toward these things than the many laypersons in the Middle East and Romania and “Greater Carpathia” and the like who commune in similar patterns. If it is any consolation to you I generally only commune a few times a year. Not because I don’t believe in frequent communion, but rather because I have a penchant for grave sin and rarely have time for confession.

    Thank you for the time you took to respond to my comment/post. I do feel rather emboldened by having this surreal experience of having the blogging equivalent of my former self refer to my current self as an apostate. It, seriously, does warm my heart.

    All the best to you and yours.

  5. Simplify Owen, simplify. Too many words. I hear the resentment but it clouds the intellectual argument. Having read it a second time I still found myself wondering why you really left. In the end, you still have to go to Christ with the simplicity of a child and leave the intellectual baggage at the door. It has served its purpose.
    In way Joseph you may be onto something. The fast is nearly over and I've gained 2 lbs. I clearly extended what charity I had to my stomach.

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