Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again
John P. Burgess
Westminster John Knox Press, 2013
226 pp., $25.00
Encounters with Orthodoxy
There is no question that my own encounter with Russian Orthodoxy changed me. I was a zealous 19-year-old Baptist when I first entered a hushed Orthodox cathedral in the provincial city of Krasnodar in the southern part of Russia, and I heard the walls praying. It shocked me right out of my pious little socks.
Three months later, traveling in and out of Orthodox churches, I would never be the same Protestant I had been. I understood in a more tangible way than I could have imagined the significance of the "smells and bells" of worship, the careful attention to the worshipping body as well as the worshipping spirit, the sense that God didn't exist "in my heart," but also out there in a big, strange world that demanded to be perceived through my senses.
John Burgess, a professor of systematic theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, set out with a much greater sense of intention to follow the same path I stumbled on as a teenager. In Encounters with Orthodoxy, he takes up the question of what American Protestants can learn from the ancient traditions of Orthodoxy and if there is any hope for our own renewal through that encounter.
The problem that led to Burgess' unresolved journey was distress about his own Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Deeply divided over moral issues, the churches of his acquaintance seemed to have fallen into the twin pits of performance-oriented worship and obsession with political and social agendas. He felt the church had "lost its grounding in the fullness of the apostolic faith." After spending one intense year in Russian, as he recounts in this book, and going back many times since, Burgess is convinced that a deep encounter with Russian Orthodoxy can change American Protestants for the better. Orthodoxy has resources, disciplines, practices, and theological understandings that can re-shape our perception of the Christian faith and ourselves within it that might in turn give American Protestants a renewed vision for our own traditions.
But before I get into the details, I want to acknowledge some of the difficulties. First, Russia is a troubled place, and every time I see Vladimir Putin standing next to Patriarch Kiril of the Moscow Patriarchate, I am not particularly enthusiastic about the transformative possibilities of Orthodoxy. Instead I see a nationalistic church that has proven itself willing to capitulate to power for its own sake. I know that there is a very complicated history that marks this reality; I just don't find myself interested in signing up for tutoring. Second, the traditions safeguarded by Orthodoxy cannot be adapted in any easy way into Protestantism. They grow out of very particular circumstances and cultures, as do our own. This means that Protestants cannot expect to adopt Orthodoxy in any superficial way. The difficulty of actually being changed by an encounter with Orthodoxy and not merely borrowing things we like at random is real.
Burgess knows and understands both of these objections and raises many others. The complexity of his approach makes his book both satisfying and unresolved. In each section of the book, he examines a particular Orthodox practice or value: miracles, ritual, holiness, beauty, monasticism. In a dialectical approach, he tries to see that practice through Orthodox eyes, then he raises Protestant objections to it, and finally attempts some kind of resolution or way forward.
To my mind, Burgess's central critique of American Protestantism as seen through an encounter with Russian Orthodoxy is about worship. For the Orthodox, God in worship is immanent and transcendent. In worship, the believer has an encounter with God's grace that is not primarily emotional, but physical. This encounter comes through the elevated sights, sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of worship. The incense, the icons, the elements of the sacraments, the chanting and prayers, the bending and the swaying of the physical body all bring the human into contact with the raining-down grace of God. The elements of worship are not symbols of grace in the abstract; they are vehicles of grace very much in the present moment of worship. In Orthodox worship, time and space are transformed, and the worshipper enters this paradise and is shaped by it as he or she responds to it with her own body. In American Protestant worship, we are more likely to talk about worship than to do it, and when we do it, we tend to hold our own physical comfort and our secular notions of time as paramount. We don't expect worship to change us necessarily—we think of private practices of devotion as more useful to transformation—but to entertain us or to connect us with our human communities.