Review: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through The Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

First of all, in an ideal world, this would have gone up about three months ago. I had requested a review copy back at the beginning of May, and for one reason or another the copy wasn’t sent out until the beginning of August or thereabouts, which meant that I wasn’t actually in physical possession of the book until I got home from Oxford, and by that point it was off to the races for the start of the academic year. More about all of that elsewhere, however.

About six years ago or so, I was corresponding with a gentleman named Charles Carter. Charles was a Baptist who was something of a presence in Anglican online discussion groups, often as something of a gadfly. He was a strict five-point Calvinist (although I don’t know that he himself used that phrase), he had no patience for any kind of sacramental theology, and liked to say things like, “The Reformers had to whitewash the churches and tear out the organs in order to give them back to the people,” or recount how, growing up as a Baptist in the South, he “sincerely” wondered whether or not Catholics were Christians.

When Charles discovered that I was a former Episcopalian who had converted to Orthodox Christianity, he was perplexed to say the least. How was that the least bit justified? “Did you even consider the ‘Geneva option’?” he asked. One of his sticking points was the practice of so-called “closed Communion”, and he argued that any church organization that would exclude other Christians from partaking is demonstrating its lack of catholicity, not affirming it. (“If Jesus visited your Orthodox parish, would you let him take Communion?” was another one of his rhetorical questions. I pointed out that actually, Christ would serve as the celebrant, since he’s the high priest. He wasn’t impressed.) I suggested that this in the context of the historical self-understanding of the Orthodox and Catholics, Charles’ point of view imposed a definition of “catholicity” on them that didn’t take them on their own terms. Charles insisted that in contemporary times, no group that claims to be a Christian organization may presume to be “the Church,” but he acknowledged being largely ignorant of pre-Reformation history, and was open to hearing the historical argument that one might make.

I walked Charles through the history as I understood it, explained how I had resolved certain questions for myself, and also had him read the Florovsky essay “The Worshipping Church” for some background on the relationship between liturgy, ecclesiology, and catholicity, and for a while it seemed like we might be getting someplace. Still, he ultimately couldn’t get past his own presuppositions, and while he initially was quite taken with Florovsky, for example, his last word on it was, “It’s a compelling piece on its own terms, but I’m pretty sure I can disprove his whole argument from scripture.” As far as the historical argument went, he saw it in the end as question-begging (not illegitimate, I suppose, from a Protestant point of view), and our correspondence petered out when it became clear that the differences were insuperable. I’m not entirely sure what happened to him, although there was a commenter who called himself “Bubba” on Rod Dreher‘s old Crunchy Con blog who had an eerily similar temperament and set of pet issues when it came to Christians coming out of a sacramental tradition. I asked “Bubba” once if he was Charles, and he gave a strange, non-responsive answer that seemed to amount to, “Don’t call me that around here,” so I let it drop.

Today, if I were to find myself in a similar exchange, I would still have the person read Florovsky, but I would give him Fr. John McGuckin’s The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture for the history, and Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s Orthodoxy and Hetorodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith for a clear statement of how Orthodox Christianity sees itself in the midst of religious pluralism, be that Christian pluralism or non-Christian pluralism.

The project of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is to give the reader a clear picture of where Orthodox Christianity positions itself relative to other Christian groups, major and minor, as well as select few non-Christian so-called “world religions”. To this end, Fr. Andrew starts out with a clear statement that, yes, this book is going to deal with doctrine, it is going to do so with the core assumption that Orthodox Christianity teaches the right doctrine, and while all humility is intended to be employed, that’s going to involve saying where we think we’re right and others are wrong. In calling ourselves Orthodox, that presumes that differences constitute heresy and/or heterodoxy, and we’re going to use those words. Key distinctives of Orthodox doctrine are sketched out, and Fr. Andrew then walks the reader through a number of issues, historical and doctrinal, having to do with Roman Catholicism, the various historic Protestant groups (that is, the offshoots from the “magisterial” and “radical” Reformers), Revivalists, fringe groups, and so on.

There’s a very tricky space that the book is staking out from the first page; how do you accomplish the stated objective using the stated methodology without the book seeming like a non-stop polemic? It’s very easy to be tarred with the “anti-” brush just by pointing out where there is disagreement. Well, turns out that there is in fact a way to do it. Fr. Andrew’s approach is to discuss differences, yes, but to also always note agreement and similarities (where possible, at least), as well as points where there could be agreement, or at least similarity, should the other side clarify one or two things or move a little bit in some direction. In short, he calls a spade a spade, but he endeavors to do so to an extent where it acknowledges the positive as well as the negative. An example may be found in the conclusion to his chapter on Roman Catholicism:

…it is critical for Orthodox Christians to note that twentieth- and twenty-first-century Roman Catholicism has seen a number of developments bringing some theologians closer to Orthodoxy and others further away. There is much in the Ressourcement (French, “going back to the sources”) movement with its fresh emphasis on the Church Fathers that should encourage the Orthodox. At the same time, certain disturbing distortions occurred in some sectors of the Roman Catholic Church in the twentieth century, such as Liberation Theology, an attempt to wed church dogma with Marxist politics.

Because of these kinds of developments — as well as the ongoing problem of the gap between official Vatican teaching and what the average Roman Catholic personally believes or is taught from the pulpit — Orthodox believers should tread lightly in discussing theology with Roman Catholics. They may be closer to or further from Orthodoxy than what is officially taught by the Vatican. It is critical to discern what the person in front of you believes before launching into any sort of detailed refutation of Roman Catholic dogman and practice.

I also believe that much of modern Orthodox criticism of Roman Catholicism is based either on pre-twentieth-century models of Rome’s thought or simply on mischaracterizations and oversimplifications of its theology and practice. In my opinion, many of the Orthodox writers of our time have borrowed heavily from Protestant polemics against Rome, which are often based either in exaggerations of misunderstandings of Rome’s theology or are instead based on Protestant theology which is not consistent with Orthodoxy. Again, it is critical that we understand the theology of the person in front of us as well as our own (pp58-9).

Now, I have no doubt that somebody could jump all over him for a point or two here and there (I can think of one or two people who probably would not take kindly to his characterization of Liberation Theology as a “distortion”, for example, and I suspect that any positive assessment of Ressourcement would also raise the hackles of some others), but for my money there’s a lot to this approach to like. There is disagreement between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, but it is not monolithic; this is what’s good, this is what’s problematic, and we’re not exactly perfect in our own approaches to criticism, so let’s have some humility. That is more or less the tone of the whole book, and it is a welcome one.

That said, there are some things that come across more sharply than others. It is accurate to point out, as Fr. Andrew does, that since Orthodox Christianity sees the Church as the New Israel and God’s chosen people, present-day Israel and Judaism have no special status from an Orthodox perspective. It is also uncomfortable to read stated so matter-of-factly in so many words. Again, as noted earlier, pointing out disagreement seems to lend itself easily to accusations of prejudice in the current era. Nonetheless, Fr. Andrew both makes it abundantly clear that’s not where he’s coming from and extends the same notice of similarities and agreement that he does to every other religion discussed in the book.

Fr. Andrew’s writing style is clear and accessible, but it is also articulate enough that one never gets the sense that he is dumbing anything down. He says what he has to say, and explains what he thinks needs explaining, and the end result should be quite readable for the average person while still being sophisticated enough for the reader who perhaps might assume that the book is written for a fifth grade reading level. There are occasional moments where his lucid prose style is interrupted with a logical leap I couldn’t quite follow, but these are few and far between. He demonstrates a wide familiarity with source materials for other religions, and also a wider knowledge of Orthodox sources than I might have expected. His is perhaps the first “mainstream” book on Orthodox Christianity in the English language I’ve encountered that cites Fr. Seraphim Rose to support an argument, for example (and to my mind, that’s progress).

For me, there is only one truly awkward moment in the book, and I’ll be up front and say it’s probably a personal issue. It is when he invokes the Civil War in discussing the differing concepts of the episcopate between Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy:

The vision of Church governance is not merely administrative but involves a theological outlook different from Orthodoxy’s collegial episcopacy. Students of American history will recognize a transition similar to the one in which centralized federal power won out in the Civil War against a looser federation of sovereign states. Just as Americans began thereafter to refer not to “these United Sates” but “the United Sates,” Roman Catholics who refer to the “the Church” most often have in mind the Vatican rather than a sense of the wholeness of the people of God (p35).

I will fully acknowledge that this quibble may well be my problem and my problem alone, but my godfather (himself the author of a book outlining the difference between Orthodox Christianity and Restorationist Christianity that would perhaps be a useful reference for Fr. Andrew in future editions) is a Southerner who refers to the Civil War as “the war of Northern aggression”, and Fr. Andrew is fairly outspoken publicly about his localist political views, so it is difficult for me to not see this carefully-worded paragraph as a moment where politics that are tangential to the topic are seeping through. It’s enough of a minor, subjective, and arguable point that I hesitate to even mention it, but I found myself reacting very strongly while reading it, so there we are.

If I have any suggestions for future editions or printings, consulting my godfather’s book for the chapter dealing with Campbell-Stone folks would be one; another would be to reconsider the subtitle. Last year I wrote a paper that used the word “lens”, much as this book’s subtitle does, to describe perspectives that shaped analysis (not the first time I’ve done so, mind), and the professor circled the word and wrote the comment, “In these troubled times, everybody is resorting to looking at things through lenses. It has become a cliché, so please find another way to phrase it.”

In sum, Fr. Andrew’s Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy is an articulate book that takes what could be treacherous subject matter and handles it with a lot of grace, authority, and humility. It strikes me as being a valuable resource for those who might have the responsibility of teaching adult catechism, as well as a worthwhile read for those non-Orthodox who want to get an adult-oriented, non-simplistic, reasonable take on just how much air there might be between Orthodoxy and their denomination. Recommended.


5 Responses to “Review: <I>Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through The Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith</I>, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick”

  1. 1 Shane 13 January 2012 at 10:14 am

    Hi Richard,

    My wife and I recently became catechumens in the Orthodox Church. I stumbled across your blog a short while ago, and I’ve really enjoyed it.

    In this article, you mention a Florovsky article called “The Worshipping Church.” I’ve searched online, but I’ve been unsuccessful in locating a copy. Do you by chance have a copy you could post or e-mail? If so, I would be much obliged.


    • 2 Richard Barrett 13 January 2012 at 11:03 am

      Hi Shane — thanks for your comment!

      The Florovsky piece is the foreword to The Festal Menaion, ed. Met. Kallistos Ware and Mother Mary. If you’re not able to track that down, let me know.

      Keep in touch!


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