Criticism, viewed from the East

A reader writes:

I’m a follower of your blog and have read many of your books. I read today the criticism by Kevin DeYoung. I would offer the following perspectives from an Eastern Orthodox following the conversation from the outside.

You are definitely onto something and I as an Orthodox resonate with much of what you are saying. You often times find support for your views with theologians like Marcus Borg. I don’t think you are going to find much evangelical support when you promote a guy who was on board with the Jesus Seminar. He may have some good things to say but his credentials make him suspect– and should.
I am really hoping that the emergent conversation can progress and not get off railed into becoming a left wing agenda. I grew up church of the brethren and it really has turned into just a social movement without theology to speak of. I left when I realized that I didn’t need the church to be a pacifist or to support the Sandanistas in Nicaraqua. The more they talked about social issues the less they mattered to me. Many more secular organizations were doing it much better. Besides the kingdom of God is not of this world as important as it may be to fight evil causes. I wanted a church that would teach me to fight my own passions through prayer, fasting and almsgiving (which has an element of social justice).
So much of what you are saying is supported by eastern theologians– especially some of your latest book. I just think you would have a much more solid base to stand up to Kevin DeYoung if you were quoting Alexander Schmemann, Kallistos Ware, or Alexander Kolomiros (The River of Fire). These modern Orthodox authors don’t fall into heretical speculation like Borg (you gotta call it what it is) and they don’t emphasize a social/political agenda but they do describe a new kind of Christianity that has not much been tried in the west. They agree with your Grecko narrative analogy but they would but in terms of the Latin
Augustinian influence on all subsequent theology. If you want social justice read St. Basil or St. John Chrysostom and they put even
Ron Sider to shame.
I guess I’m saying that as long as the emergent movement is just a conversation and never connected to the historical church, it has little chance of lasting very long. It will become a bunch of conflicting ideas with no historical creeds or liturgy to hold it together. So, I agree with Kevin in that the emergent could be just like the liberal of the 50’s although I totally disagree with his Calvinistic worldview.
I love your excitement of discovering that God is not a terrorist. I would only ask you to find the historical players (St. Isaac of Syria)who agreed with this and hook up with them instead of folks like Borg who actually undermine the very good news we seek to preach by denying the historic resurrection– not to mention this is confusing many Christians who can’t discern this for themselves. No Christian in the first 1500 years of church history could deny major tenents of the faith and with a straight face say they were a Christian. If they didn’t believe the Nicene Creed, they could have been a lot of thing and even had interesting opinions, but calling them an orthodox christian was not an option.

Thanks for your comments. As I first explained in A Generous Orthodoxy, and as will be even more clear in my upcoming Naked Spirituality, I’ve gained so much from marvelous sages, scholars, and mystics who are most celebrated in the Eastern wing of the Christian faith. I hope you won’t mind me pushing back on three points you made.
First, on God’s kingdom not being of this world, yes, but what does that mean? You seem to imply, at least partially, that it means the gospel doesn’t have much to say about our social, political, and economic life, but rather is about fighting our personal passions. One of the themes of my work (it comes up again in my upcoming book, but from the other side, so to speak) is that these two dimensions of the gospel are inseparable. Personal sin is interwoven with social sin, and social with personal. As John Wesley (someone else who shared an interest in the Eastern tradition) said, all holiness is social holiness. I doubt we disagree on this – but I just want to make clear that I’m not comfortable with pitting one against the other.
Also, I agree with you that to subcontract our thinking to a “left-wing agenda” would be tragic for the emergent conversation. But I also must say that when much of the American church – Evangelical and Roman Catholic, but also Mainline Protestant (I’m not sure about Eastern Orthodox folk in this regard) – has become highly captive to a right-wing, nationalist, American-exceptionalist, militarist agenda, to differ with that agenda, no matter how gently and graciously and delicately, almost always leads to being accused of being left-wing. The “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” mentality is still remarkably deep-rooted.
Second, on Marcus Borg. I’m in a strange situation when I read a comment like this. Before I knew Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan personally, I had little good to say about them or the Jesus Seminar. I shared the caricatured view that most of my Evangelical associates shared. But I wish you could experience what I have – first, in listening to and teaching with them, hearing their passionate engagement with the Scriptures, and experiencing their gracious friendship whether or not we were in agreement on everything. I remember the first time Marcus and I stood at the front of a church after a panel discussion, with a long line of people wanting to speak to each of us. Because Marcus’ line was much longer than mine, I got to eavesdrop a bit on what people were saying to him. Person after person said, “If it weren’t for your books, I wouldn’t be a Christian today,” or “I became a Christian after reading one of your books.” This struck me, partly because I hear the same thing about my work, and partly because it suggested to me that (insert wink here) Marcus may actually be an evangelist of a certain kind, helping people find and keep faith in Christ.
Not only that, but I had a change of heart when I read Marcus and Dom’s book The Last Week. I was struck by their deep engagement with the Scriptures. In that book (and others since), they embody – imperfectly, but that’s a given for all of us, right? – what you might call a post-critical engagement with the biblical text. I grew up with a precritical approach as a fundamentalist/Evangelical; we by and large were functional dictation-theorists, holding a view of the Bible that was largely Quranic. I was taught to fear and reject wholesale a critical approach to the Bible as “liberal” and “heretical” and otherwise awful. That’s what a lot of us assumed the Jesus Seminar was about, and nothing more. But my sense is, that wherever Marcus and Dom were in the Jesus Seminar days, they, like all of us, are on a journey, and in recent years I sense they have moved beyond the modernist assumptions of liberalism to something larger and deeper, a second naivete if you will (to reference Ricouer and others). (In my upcoming book, I’ll describe this second naivete as “stage four.”_
Please understand – this isn’t a blanket endorsement or non-endorsement of everything and anything Marcus (or anyone else) says. He has never asked me to make such an endorsement, nor have I asked others for such an endorsement. We’re all seeking to serve God and neighbor and enemy in the Spirit of Christ, offering our best, knowing that it is always partial at best. (This would be true of Kevin DeYoung as well, I’m sure.) I hope this explains why it’s so hard for me to make a blanket rejection of Marcus, as some folks would like me to do … to do so would feel like a denial of the bonds of friendship, love, and Christian integrity and charity.
I don’t think I quoted Marcus to respond to Kevin DeYoung and other neocalvinist critics like him; that would have been a major rhetorical mistake, as you suggest. It would be interesting to hear how they would respond to the great lights of the Eastern church, as you suggest.
Finally, on your assumption that the emergent conversation is “never connected to the historic church,” that doesn’t match my experience. It seems to me that we in the emergent conversation are seeking to do two things – First, to be informed and engaged with the rich traditions of church history (so yes, I’ve benefitted greatly from Kallistos Ware and Alexander Schmemenn – whose journals are one of my favorite books, although I’ve not read Alexander Kolomiros yet), and second, to continue that tradition into the future by continuing to do as our ancestors did: think freshly, boldly, courageously, and faithfully … rooted in the Scriptures, and reading them in the company with our sisters and brothers from the past and from the present. Our ancestors grappled courageously and faithfully with the issues of their day: we’re seeking to do the same in our own, educated by their diverse and inspiring examples.
OK, beyond those minor push-backs – thanks so much for the affirmation. A friend was just saying to me the other day how he wishes he could find more hospitable folks from within Eastern Orthodoxy who would be eager to share their treasures without demanding that we acknowledge their tradition as the only true church. In spite of these few push-backs, I hope you can feel my appreciation for the ways that you are manifesting this spirit.
If you’re interested in reading the work of a contemporary Greek Orthodox scholar who, I believe, is grappling with many of the same issues I and my friends “in the West” are grappling with, I’d recommend Athanasios Papathanasiou. I’ve read a number of his translated books and articles and had the chance to hear him speak last year. What a breath of fresh air!