I found the whole conversation a bit odd. I suppose our discussions were hampered by the fact that we no longer speak the same language. In Orthodoxy, we have a throw-away line that usually says something to the effect that it is not that Orthodoxy has different answers, but that it asks different questions. I believe this to be true, but it is awfully hard to explain without explicating 2,000 years of church history. And yet, I felt this was exactly the position I was in with my friend. His burning concerns have no real meaning to me any longer. Take for example his beef with "attendance." However one characterizes Orthodox services, the word "attendance" is not a factor. One attends a concert. One attends a class. One attends a lecture. In every case, the attendee is part of an audience. One participates in an Orthodox liturgy.
But this would have been hard to explain to my friend, and would have come across as just more know-it-all triumphalism of which we are sometimes guilty. And I am afraid it comes across that what in print, as well. But the differences are real and substantive. The thing that really frustrated me, however, was my friend's either/or approach to his dilemma--he could either "attend" church or he could "do good." I asked him why he could not do both. In truth, there is no either/or solution. The question is really one of yes/and. He, in turn, was disturbed by my insistence that his anti-communal, individualistic go-it-alone approach was a dead end.
My friend's attitude put me in mind of something Flannery O'Connor once wrote--"The good thing about Protestantism is that it always carries the seeds of its own reversal. It is open at both ends--on one end, to Catholicism, and on the other to unbelief." I sympathized with his frustrations on the limitations of the church he knew--the general churchiness that characterized his worship experience. And having once been there myself, I knew exactly that to which he was speaking. My response that worship did not have to be that way was met with a good bit of incredulity. He could not image anything outside the general context of his experience--Protestant/fundamentalist/evangelical. My concern was with what O'Connor noted--the open end he was tumbled out of was the one which led to unbelief.
And along the way, he was leaving himself wide open to anything and everything--from the fluffy nothingness of Philip Gulley to the latest hot-shot televangelist. He actually convinced me to read Gulley's If The Church Were Christian. He assured me that it would change my life. The book did, in fact, bring tears to my eyes: first because I could never regain the time I had wasted reading the book, and secondly because a small forest was sacrificed to publish that trash. After that, he wanted me to listen to the latest podcast by David Jeremiah. That is where I drew the line. Like I say, different languages.
The either/or dichotomy is not unique to just Protestantism. I came across the following on a Catholic blog:
Anyone who says, "We don't go to Mass, but we are really good people" have missed the Christian bus big time. They don't get it and so greatly don't get it that they are almost uneducable. Their misunderstanding is so profound that you couldn't even say to them what they haven't got because they don't know what they don't know. The astounding blind ness of such folks is that nine times out of then they then turn around and blame the people who do go to Mass for being hypocrites. Their lack of self awareness and spiritual awareness reveals the depth of their own hypocrisy for they think they are good, and never see that the essential prayer--the prayer at the heart of it all is the sinner's plea, "Lord Jesus Christ, Have Mercy on me a Sinner."
This prayer, so simple and so profound is the prayer that truly liberates. See how free and how child like you can be if you simply say this prayer? Within this prayer is the soul's freedom and the soul's joy. Within this prayer is the simple trust in God on which everything else depends. Therefore, "Being good or Going to Mass" is a totally false dichotomy.
As one of the students said, "You can't really go to Mass and mean it and be bad, and if you don't go to Mass you can't really be good."
And so, the false dichotomies play out in Catholic circles as well.
My friend's situation has been on my mind for some time now, but only recently did I read of a theory as to why these questions are so common in Western Christendom, whether Catholic or Protestant. Andrea Elizabeth has undertaken a series on Dr. Joseph Farrell's God, History and Dialectic. This is my introduction to this work, which, unfortunately, can be obtained only by e-book. Dr. Farrell examines the difference courses taken by what he calls the First Europe (the East) and Second Europe (the West.) The following is an excerpt from the Introduction, which is available online:
Why did the western half of Christendom split along so cleanly dialectical lines during the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation? Why, for example, is it not only convenient but possible to describe that split by a series of polar oppositions: Faith versus works, Scripture versus Tradition, “private conversion stay-at-home-and-watch-television religion” versus “public, sacramental, institutional” religion; predestination versus free will, Kernel versus Husk, Kerygma versus Dogma, Luther versus Zwingli, Calvin versus Arminius, Whitefield and Edwards versus the Wesleys, Henry VIII versus the Pope? It has its secular counterparts as well: Empiricism versus Rationalism, Materialism versus Idealism, Science versus Religion, Creation versus Evolution, hard versus soft disciplines, and so on. One could
cite an endless litany of similar oppositions. Indeed, theologians, philosophers, and
historians of the Second Europe have long written about this or that pair of these eitheror
polarities, but astonishingly, have either done so in isolation of an examination of the
paradigm of dialectical opposition itself, or they have accepted that paradigm as an
inevitability of Christian theology or of Judeo-Christian civilization itself. The
phenomenon of this acceptance is therefore deeply rooted, and must be accounted for.
These essays argue that the paradigm is itself a direct consequence of Augustine’s
formulation of trinitarian doctrine. But the movement from the specifically Augustinian
formulation of the Trinity to these cultural consequences is certainly not an easy one to
recount, and thus, many theologians — those most adequately equipped to undertake
the task — fail to do so, for they view the original dispute between the East and West
over that formulation as a dispute about words. The troublesome questions multiply:
Why did a Church and a culture, which believed absolutely in the complete union in
Christ of the utterly spiritual and the completely material, without separation and without
confusion, lose sight of the implications of that belief in the movements of the dialectical
deconstruction of its thought and institutions? Why did the same Church, which, heir to
the doctrine of the Trinity, ought to have believed in the “both-andness” of Absolute Unity
and Utter diversity find itself embroiled in life-and-death constitutional struggles between
the Empire and the Papacy, or more fundamentally, between endless contests between
One Pope and Many Bishops? (p.11)
Dr. Farrell would say that the either-or approach of my friend--as opposed to a "both-andness" view--is hardwired into the very makeup of western Christendom, manifesting itself in an endless progression of controversial counterpoints. I believe that to be true. The real question, though, is how does one move past that mentality? We have become accustomed to the rut we are in. Western Christendom steadily declines with the endless re-reforming of the Faith these last few hundred years. There may be no way out until we hit bottom first.