I went to an orthodox church service today with Joel from the Vagrant Cafe, an eye-opening experience to be sure. Lately, I’ve had a desire to experience other Christian traditions. I’ve been going to the same church for years, ever since I started college, and now I find myself feeling a little aimless there.
It’s not that I disagree with the theology that the church espouses. If anything, I’ve found it more and more relevant, one of the most relevant things in my current spiritual walk. But at the same time, I find other aspects less and less relevant to my life.
I was raised in the evangelical tradition, which teaches that you may come to God whenever you want without any intercessor (such as a priest), that “religion” is a one on one experience. While such belief has its advantages, making God a far more personal and approachable entity, it also creates this “buddy” syndrome. God becomes a “friend,” a “nice guy” that you can tell your problems to, a shoulder to cry on. And like most “nice guys,” He becomes fairly harmless and safe. It also leads to this “me-centered” doctrine; one of my friends pointed out that most “contemporary” Christian praise songs always seem to be about us, the believers, as opposed to the Object of our belief.
I think most evangelical Christians find the idea of liturgy a little alarming. At best, it’s boring and stodgy. At worst, God becomes this unapproachable deity, separated from us by old rituals and bizarre songs. I know many Christians who might look at it uncomfortably, who would rebel against the idea that worship, which should be an emotional outpouring of praise and need, should be confined to centuries-old traditions.
On the other hand, the orthodox liturgy has its own appeal. You don’t approach God as you would some guy on the street, or some old friend you see. The rhythms of the liturgy separate us from the rhythms of life, forcing one to think about each detail as they approach the Lord. Even though I merely observed the service, I felt that effect on me. As I look back, I can’t remember the concerns of the world, which always press in on me, to be all that prevalent.
I think I want the best of both worlds (I’m about to do some gross over-simplification, so I apologize in advance). I like the evangelical idea of being able to “barge into the presence of God,” of being able to find a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes, when I can’t find the words, that’s all I really need. I just don’t like reducing God to a subject for bad love songs.
On the other hand, I like the orthodox concept of approaching God with an eye for details. Of making sure your mind is free from the rhythm of the earthly before approaching the heavenly. Of letting the ritual be a framework for devotion. But I can see how it might make God seem distant, approachable only through smoke, candles, and incense. And furthermore, I don’t want to risk my religion becoming focused on rote and repetition.
It’s a paradox, but then again, much in Christianity has been, and always will be. Speaking as an evangelical Christian, I think it’s disheartening that so many like me dismiss other traditions, like that of the Orthodoxy (and let’s not even get started on Catholicism), or that so many people criticize all of the different denominations. Maybe God doesn’t want unity, or at least unity in the way that we think of it. Maybe He deliberately chose to create these many traditions so each one could be a different facet of His truth.
I’m not arguing for an “anything goes” mindset and heresy is still heresy, but if we worship God for gifting everyone with different abilities, desires, and dreams… maybe we should also thank Him for creating all of these different traditions. And as for the paradox… thank God for it. The fact that there is a paradox means we haven’t figured it all out lately, but it also means we shouldn’t stop thinking about it.