Sunday, March 28, 2010

BKAR -- Eastern Orthodxy: An Overview

After posting the introduction I started realizing how daunting of a task this is.  After much thought, I've decided to separate this "Better Know a Religion:  Eastern Orthodoxy" in to the following sections:

  • An Overview (this post)
  • Orthodox Beliefs (Similarities and Differences)
  • The Day-To-Day (What Orthodoxy Looks Like)
  • and etc.

In this overview we decided to give basic facts and statistics and a little history about Orthodoxy.  Granted, you can probably go to Wikipedia and read practically the same thing, but pretend you don't know that.

The Orthodox Church around the world is estimated to have between 225 - 300 million members (varying sites give varying numbers).  Although these members are found all over the world, a majority are found in the former Soviet countries (Russia, namely, as well as Belarus, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Georgia,  Romania, and so on), Greece, and Ethopia.

In Russia, 80% of the population claim to be Orthodox (a number I was surprised at--I actually thought it would be higher).  10% of this group attend church regularly, while 43% only go on holidays (sound familiar westerners??).

Although the split between the West (Catholic) and East (Orthodox) occurred in 1054 (known as the Great Schism), thus forming both churches, the tension between regions had been growing for centuries.

In the beginning, however, there was a sort of "unity despite diversity" between the churches of the Latin West and the Greek East.  There was this understanding that because of the varied cultures and ways of thinking and approaches to living, the church would have to find ways to make the gospel meaningful to their present culture.   The West had a more pragmatic, logical, and legal view of the Gospel (as America tends to even today), talking about laws and justice.  According to Dr. James R. Payton, Jr., the distinctly Roman approach was the practical application of the gospel.

Despite the similarities of reason and democracy, the East took a different approach.  Because of the philosophical background of the ancient Greeks, the East had a more abstract and mystical approach to the Gospel.  An old saying goes, "the Greeks built metaphysical systems; the Romans built roads."  While the West relied on reason to help in understanding Christianity, the east put limitations on what reason could attain.  The Eastern mindset was not on justice, guilt, and laws, but light and darkness, spirit and matter, life and death, good and evil.

It is important to note here that both viewpoints are not a contradiction, nor is one better than the other-- they are complimentary.  Dr. Payton writes:

As the Christian message spread into these divergent cultures, it came to people whose attitudes and concerns had been shaped by those cultures.  These people had the same longings, needs, and ultimate concerns as any human would, but the particular ways in which they thought, acted, and lived, and the questions with which the wrestled, were inevitably shaped y and inextricably bound up with the cultures in which they had grown up.
Thus, contextualization was not a merely theoretical issue but the need of the hour for the fledgling church.  Without departing from the teaching of Christ and the apostles, the church nevertheless, in bringing the gospel relevantly to each of these great cultures, spoke it into those cultures in ways that their people could understand.  Those who heard the gospel and responded in faith also incorporated it in terms of the concerns they already knew and the questions with which they traditionally wrestled.  Because of this, from early in the church's existence, different emphases and stresses in teaching and preaching emerged in the two halves of the Roman Empire.  These distinguishable emphases did not contradict each other, but they were nevertheless different.  Each was a relevant response to the distinct culture into which the gospel had come.

As I mentioned earlier, in the beginning these differences between Western and Eastern Christianity did not split the church; there was in fact surprising unity.  However, by the 5th century, relations began to change and become strained.  That, along with differences of beliefs in icons, when Easter should be celebrated, and so on, caused wider rifts.  Finally, because of differing beliefs on whether the Holy Sprit proceeded from God (patrioque), or God and Jesus (filioque), the Great Schism occurred in 1054, splitting the church into Catholic and Orthodox.

This is definitely not a comprehensive history.  But I wanted to give an idea as to the background of the branches of Christianity that led to Orthodoxy.  I feel this will help with the next post in understanding the beliefs and traditions, and why they might be similar in some cases and different in others to Protestantism and Catholicism.

For much more detail than I could give here, I recommend these great books on the matter:

  Light From the Christian East:  An Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition by James R. Payton,  Jr.

 Eastern Orthodox Christianity:  A Western Perspective by Daniel Clendenin

 This upcoming week Beth and I will also be observing the daily traditions from Palm Sunday tomorrow leading up to Resurrection Sunday.  I know "tradition" is a word that many Protestants hiss at, but there can be great purpose in tradition, and must not be mistaken with traditionalism (Jaroslav Pelikan, in The Vindication of Tradition, writes "Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living").  More on that later.

No comments:

Post a Comment