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February 06, 2010


Joyless Moralist

CS Lewis certainly didn't think so. So either he was completely ignorant of Orthodoxy, or you are, or you're allowing yourself flights of fancy.

It would seem to me that Orthodoxy (Russian Orthodoxy most of all) is the furthest from Lewis' idea of mere Christianity in that it is the most xenophobic of the Christian branches, and also the stingiest about allowing any possibility of the others qualifying as "Christian." That is exactly contrary to the spirit in which Lewis wrote 'Mere Christianity." Now, mind you, I personally don't regard that as a particularly damning thing, because I think the passage you quote above is one of Lewis' sillier ideas, which at the end of the day doesn't make a lot of sense. But quoting that passage as a reason to be Orthodox strikes me as making even less sense.

Nathan Smith

I'm not really sure what JM is referring to. I've never heard any suggestion from the Orthodox that Catholics or Protestants aren't Christian. What specific examples of xenophobia does she have in mind?

This has always puzzled me. I tend to hear criticisms of the Russian Orthodox Church from outsiders and I'm never able to identify anything in the various communications and actions of the Church that corresponds to them. Maybe I'm just not looking at the right sources of information, I don't know.

Joyless Moralist

For the former, I've actually discussed it with scholars who are Orthodox, who tell me either that Catholics are not Christian or that the subject is controversial. But I also read about the crankiness of the ROC in my "religion in the former USSR" seminar last summer. They were notorious for complaining, not only about proselytizing, but even about other churches wanting to do corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, caring for orphans, etc.) on Russian soil. Apparently it's better to go hungry than to be cared for by CATHOLICS.

The Russian Orthodox are also the one branch of Orthodox known for boycotting, or else noisily storming out of, the all-Orthodox conferences that all the other branches have apparently found beneficial. The ROC would certainly stand in my mind as the least ecumenical of major Christian groups.

It's odd; I actually have a lot of respect for the Orthodox, but not, it would seem, for at all the same reasons you do.

Nathan Smith

Well, I think you know more about it than me, but my understanding is that not only are Catholics not not Christian, they're not even heretics, quite. Papal infallibility, the *filioque* is maybe a small problem though much less so than history makes it, the Catholics are quite mistaken in thinking the "thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my church" was somehow an endorsement of papal monarchy; and some Catholic doctrines like Purgatory and the Immaculate Conception (of Mary, that is; not the Virgin Birth, which Orthodox and Protestants also believe in) are just made up. But it doesn't amount to heresy. I'd be interested to know which Orthodox scholars you have in mind. Not that I'm setting myself up as an authority to judge them for having the wrong views, you understand; I'm just curious as to what they have to say.

The claim that "Orthodoxy is mere Christianity" is not at all inconsistent with the ROC being "the least ecumenical of major Christian groups." If you're trying to practice mere Christianity, while others are espousing Christianity-and-x and inviting you to join them in an ecumenical unity, you might well be rather firm in saying, "No, you've got to drop x. We can't be united while you hold on to that." Or, if others are trying to compromise on essentials, a mere Christian might have to say "No, that definitely has to stay in. If you don't accept it, there can't be unity between us."

Joyless Moralist

That's not what the Russian Orthodox are accused of doing. Obviously refusing to compromise with error is not blameworthy. But it seems like the ecumenical spirit that CS Lewis wants to endorse says something more like, "We have our differences, and they do matter, but the most important thing is that we're all Christians and we should rejoice in what unites us, even while acknowledging the significance of what divides us."

Surely the need for corporal works of mercy is one of the things in which Christian groups can be united? And are the divisions with *other Orthodox* groups so great as to make even conversation impossible? Ecumenism can be taken too far, or developed in the wrong ways, but it seems like complaining that "the Catholics are sheltering OUR orphans" is un-ecumenical in a way that even I find blameworthy. And I'm not that big a fan of ecumenism.

The problem with "mere Christianity" is that, basically, everyone wants to say what you say: MY group is merely Christian, and the others have compromised in some way. Lewis wants to suggest that there's a lower bar that everyone can agree to, which qualifies one as Christian, though it still might leave room for significant errors. Thus, questions about Mariology, or the source of human authority on earth, or the precise relationship between faith and grace etc etc, can be considered part of the extraneous stuff that's important but not a part of the "mere" package. The problem is, there really *isn't* agreement about what should be included in this "essential Christian" package. And people who are attracted to the idea almost invariably regard whatever they themselves believe as being the "it" collection of doctrines. At the end of the day, this "lower bar" concept might be useful within a particular Christian denomination trying to define who *they* do and don't regard as fellow Christians, but it's not very useful for ecumenical purposes. What *is* useful for ecumenical purposes is being cooperative about whatever areas of agreement we do happen to find -- such as, one would hope, the need for corporal works of mercy.

Nathan Smith

Well, I don't know the details of the corporal works of mercy in Russia. I remember I once went to a meeting at Harvard where Catholic Relief Services was recruiting people, and the topic of Russia came up, and what he said-- if I recall correctly-- was rather different. He said the *Catholics* expected CRS to serve only Catholics, and that they ended up not working with the Catholic community there as a result. So there might be different versions of the story here. I can imagine a number of ways in which the Russian Orthodox Church might be justified in resisting the work of Catholic charities on Russian soil. I mean, it's not as if Russia is really such a poor country by global standards, so one might ask, "If you want to engage in charity, why not operate in Central America or Haiti or sub-Saharan Africa, places that are very poor *and* have a lot of Catholics, or maybe in India or Bangladesh where people are a lot poorer than here, rather than in Russia, a middle-income country which can really take care of its own decently well?" Of course, one might also worry that the example of mercy from Catholics would lead members of one's flock into error and jeopardize their souls. But I would tend to regard this reason as not quite a proper ground for objecting if it weren't for the other one.

But on the main point, I'm not sure that mere Christianity as Lewis presents it is a "lower bar." I mean, he goes into Trinitarian theology, miracles like the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, sexual norms like the prohibition of premarital sex, a strong advocacy of humility... well, I can't summarize it all here, but there's a lot of substance to it. Yes, I do sort of regard the beliefs I share with Orthodox as comprising the "essential Christian package," more or less, though there are a lot of traditions in Orthodoxy, e.g., iconography and the specific fasting rules and the liturgical calendar and the particular selection of canonized saints that the Orthodox venerate and so on, that are shared with my fellow Orthodox but are not part of any "mere Christian" minimum. Though they're also not beliefs so maybe that doesn't count. What is striking is how much I find myself in agreement with writers like Chesterton,* Lewis, and Wright when they seek to lay out the essence of a general, nondenominational Christianity. You would think that there would be a lot of disagreement on the essential Christian package, but what I'm struck by, at least when I read these writers, is that there doesn't seem to be. And it seems to me, moreover, that being able both fully to accept and also to be satisfied with mere Christianity comes from being Orthodox. If I were Catholic I'd have to accept a lot of other extraneous stuff. If I were a mainstream Protestant I'd feel some of the high theology and supernaturalism was new and disturbing. If I were a fundamentalist I'd be disturbed by the emphasis on reason and the attitude to the Bible-- respectful but not literalist-- of Lewis and Wright.

The evangelicals seem to me closest to "mere Christianity" other than the Orthodox, except for one thing: they believe in *assurance of salvation.* Though there is a lot of partial support for this idea from Scripture, the doctrine also seems inconsistent with many of the parables, and in general it wreaks havoc with the philosophy that has to underlie Christianity. And again, the mere Christianity of Lewis, Wright, and Chesterton doesn't include this doctrine.

* Chesterton, of course, was Catholic, but in *Orthodoxy* he specifically puts to one side Catholic/Protestant debates and instead defends Christianity generally.

Joyless Moralist

As a faithful Orthodox, don't you have to believe a lot of stuff about the efficacy of Sacraments? Or what about the status of icons -- aren't those very important to the Orthodox? If you said, "Oh, icons, they're basically just nice pictures that we like to hang in churches," wouldn't that be a, well, unfaithful Orthodox view? I would think that would be every bit as important to the Orthodox as, say, the sexual ethics the CS Lewis outlines.

Of course, part of my irritation with "mere Christianity" is that it's really contrary to what I take to be the most important point, namely, that you shouldn't be trying to distill things down to the minimum number of beliefs necessary. You should be trying to "think with the Church," submit yourself to tradition and see where it leads you. The two attitudes aren't logically contradictory, but in spirit they do run contrary to one another, I think.

justin bieber shoes

i went to the same school as patrick. i remeber those girls from my school who wrote in. they were white trash...i always felt so bad for them.

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