"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Protestantism and Orthodoxy

If you ask some Christians what they can learn from each other, you are sometimes given polemical and triumphant answers that indicate any such learning will be entirely unidirectional and the only thing for the other party to do is to surrender, submit, and convert. This is sometimes the case for self-proclaimed "traditionalists" whether in Catholicism or Orthodoxy--often with reference to each other, and certainly with reference of either of them to Protestantism. Their "side" has all the answers beyond which there is only outer darkness and ignorance. What I find very amusing about such attitudes--in addition, of course, to their being historically ignorant and profoundly, ungenerously, ungraciously at odds with the much wider, more graciously accommodating and generously understanding traditions they purport to represent--is how often these Catholics and Orthodox have themselves taken on a distinctly, ironically Protestant hue as these individuals start promulgating their own magisterial encyclicals on Facebook and elsewhere instructing us on what "traditional Orthodoxy" or "truly canonical Orthodoxy" or "traditional Catholicism" really, really teaches. As Alasdair MacIntyre famously noted more than thirty years ago, modernity is the period par excellence in which the blind acclaim their own ability to see.

Not all books fall into that trap, however. A recent one asks what look to be intelligent and useful questions, born out of a concern for the decline of all Christian traditions in North America, especially oldline Protestantism: John P. Burgess, Encounters with Orthodoxy: How Protestant Churches Can Reform Themselves Again (John Knox Press, 2013), 232pp.

About this book we are told:
When author and theologian John P. Burgess first travelled to Russia, he was hoping to expand his theological horizons and explore the rebirth of the Orthodox Church since the fall of Communism. But what he found changed some fundamental assumptions about his own tradition of North American Protestantism. In this book, Burgess asks how an encounter with Orthodoxy can help Protestants better see both strengths and weaknesses of their own tradition. In a time in which North American Protestantism is in decline—membership has now fallen to below 50% of the population—Russian Orthodoxy can help Protestants rethink the ways in which they worship, teach, and spread the gospel. Burgess considers Orthodox rituals, icons, saints and miracles, monastic life, and Eucharistic theology and practice. He then explores whether and how Protestants can use elements of Orthodoxy to reform church life.

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