In my search for a church home one of the branches of Christianity that I have explored is the Eastern Orthodox. One of the benefits of my exploration of this tradition is that it has given me some much needed perspective on my own approach to Christianity as a Western Christian. In the West the basic approach to Christianity seems to be:
- Define doctrinal and theological positions.
- Live the Christian life (prayer, fasting, Bible reading, other spiritual disciplines, missions, etc…) with those whose doctrinal and theological positions are compatible with yours.
In the East the basic approach seems to be:
- Live the Christian life (prayer, fasting, Bible reading, other spiritual disciplines, missions, etc…).
- Define doctrinal and theological positions if necessary for living the Christian life, otherwise don’t bother.
Note these are just intended to be rough outlines, not exhaustive definitions.
Each approach has drawbacks and each approach also has benefits. For the West we are generally adept and defining and defending the doctrines of the Christian faith, but sometimes these definitions lead to us to break fellowship with our fellow Christians over non-essential doctrinal issues (e.g. the order of end time events); some doctrinal issues though are essential enough to break fellowship over (e.g. the Trinity, or the full deity and humanity of Jesus to name a few). However the Western approach doesn’t necessarily lead to the breaking of fellowship over non-essential issues.
The Eastern approach has the advantage of creating an atmosphere in which one can live and experience the Christian life with other Christians without being divided over non-essential doctrinal issues. However this approach can leave someone unable to clearly define and defend the Christian faith in the pluralistic religious culture of our day. The Eastern approach does not necessarily lead to this however as there are certainly Eastern Christians capable of adeptly defending the Christian faith in the modern world.
A favorite verse of Western Christians to justify our academic approach to Christianity is Romans 12:2,
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Romans 12:2 ESV)
However, if we are going to truly renew our minds and be transformed we must also make sure that we pull ourselves away from our books and live the Christian life. We need to cultivate a lifestyle of prayer and fasting. We need to put into practice and live the doctrine and theology that we devote so much of our energy and time to defining, defending, and articulating. Unless we actually live and practice the faith that we are so zealous to intellectually defend we will soon find ourselves no longer defending it. This is because Christianity demands to be lived, not defined. It is necessary for us to live a life of prayer and fellowship with the Holy Spirit because what we are defending is not a philosophical system, but a way of life.
Academic study is certainly an important ingredient for mind renewal, but the key ingredient to mind renewal is the daily experience of prayer, of fellowship (with other Christians and the Holy Spirit), of experiencing the daily provision and care of God in our lives, of the Christian life. If either of these ingredients is not given enough attention transformation will not happen. Either Christianity will become an academic exercise devoid of any saving (referring to either justification or sanctification) benefit, or it will become so ill defined that one will not be able to discern between what is of God and what is from man or demons.
As a Western Christian I believe that I am guilty of neglecting the experiential ingredient of transformation. I have devoted too much of my time and resources to the intellectual defense of the faith (and this defense is certainly necessary) and not enough to living the faith I am defending. I believe that ideally the academic and experiential aspects of Christianity should be equal in emphasis. If the balance shifts to either side problems arise. This balance must be maintained in order for my mind to truly be renewed and for transformation to happen.