My ongoing study of baptism has led me to look at the early church fathers and then, consequently, to Eastern Orthodox perspectives. I am always curious to find out what kinds of assumptions I hold when it comes to my understanding of the faith. This understanding can be either theological arguments or, more likely, unexamined views. The assumptions can be consciously or unconsciously held. In other words, what do I take as truth? (I wrote something about this before.) The question is not only in terms of final conclusions, but also in terms of what is the right way to frame one’s perspective. The “givens” we assume and often hold uncritically play a big role in the conclusions we accept.
My history is Protestant in terms of my foundational training. Recently I have been curious about Catholicism, and have done some studying in that regard. Consequently my thinking has expanded and I have been humbled by how little I know. Now I find the Orthodox Church fascinating—and I wonder which way is right, or more right; which perspective is the best to have, and which place is the best from which to start?
With this in mind, I was shook up somewhat by the following passage from James Payton’s book, Light from the Christian East. He says:
As heir to the emphasis of Roman civilization, Christianity in the Latin West was much concerned with law. In that Roman legal tradition for which the Roman Empire was justly famous, concerns with status before the law, with guilt and justice, with debt and credit, and with other similar matters were foundational, ultimate considerations. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that Western Christian theology, ecclesiastical practice and piety all came to reflect concerns with matters that properly belong in a court of law—specifically, in God’s court. This was true already in the period of antiquity; it remained so throughout the Middle Ages in the West; it is unmistakable in the concerns of the Protestant Reformation as well. Questions of merit and debt, of satisfaction and payment, of justification and condemnation, are all appropriate and natural questions within this approach. To this day, Western Christianity has been shaped by this ancient Roman heritage which has been transmitted down through the centuries.
In contrast, the eastern half of the Roman Empire was not preoccupied with questions of law and legal standing. The prior concerns of Hellenistic intellectual culture shaped both the questions asked and the answers given by the church in that culture. In the East, those questions, rooted in careful philosophical thought, converged especially on the contrast between light and darkness, life and death, spirit and matter, and on the limitations of human reason. Christians in the East sought to address the underlying questions of their society by emphasizing those elements of the apostolic message that spoke to such issues. Questions of guilt and legality, for example, or of satisfaction and payment were not the main issues for Eastern Christianity; instead, Eastern Christians focused on the struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, on the process of salvation, on the gift of eternal life and communion with God. Even so, Christianity in the East was reserved about the capacities of human reason to express adequately the mysteries of the faith.
I realize that most of my formal understanding of Christianity is fully and fundamentally western. I say formal because along with my theology there is also my experience and intuition. Consequently, and as I study more and more beyond the “safe” boundaries proscribed by my Protestant training, I am finding the Eastern Christian perspective tugging at me. This is due, in part at least, to the fact that my experience points to “the struggle between good and evil, between light and darkness, on the process of salvation, on the gift of eternal life and on communion with God.” I have so much more to learn about Eastern Christianity but, thus far, it fascinates me deeply.