I like this from Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick's podcast "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy" on AFR. I believe this is from the first episode. It's long but worthwhile, and helped me come to terms with the same kinds of questions.
In most areas of life, we are concerned with the truth. A cashier has to know how much change she is given. A nurse has to apply just the right amount of medication to a patient. A mathematician checks and double-checks his proofs. A jury listens to all the facts to sort out the truth in a trial. A history teacher has to get the names and dates right. A scientist publishes her work for peer review to ensure everyone gets the same results. In all of these cases and more, what’s important is not opinion; rather, it is truth.
Yet, it seems that when it comes to questions of religion and spirituality and the accompanying moral questions, we become relativists. Instead of asking who God really is, we ask, “Who is God to me?” Instead of asking what it means for God to become a man, we suggest, “That’s okay for some people to believe if they want.” Instead of asking whether God expects something of us, we judge religious expectations by what we ourselves want. The pursuit of objectivity goes out the window, and subjectivity reigns.
This fundamental problem is made worse because of the lack of familiarity with the tools of spiritual knowledge; that is, most people are not doing what it takes in order to see what is true. If an astronomer refused to use a telescope, or if a biologist refused to use a microscope, we would—at best—regard them as having incomplete knowledge in their fields. From the Christian point of view, what is lacking is purity of heart; as Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Also lacking is the guidance to achieve that purity from those who have seen God and passed on their experience to the next generation.
Plato defined that same problem when he wrote The Republic and included the famous allegory of the cave. In this allegory, prisoners chained up in a cave for their whole lives believe that all reality is defined by the shadows they see on the wall. If one of the prisoners escaped, found his way to the surface, and saw the sun and all reality for what it is, how could he describe his experience to people whose reality is defined by shadows? When he stumbles back into the cave, trying to adjust back to life in the darkness, those in the cave may well ridicule him as having been damaged by his experience rather than enlightened. Such is the plight of many believers today.
Let me submit that the great spiritual battle of our time is not a struggle between believers and atheists; rather, it is a struggle between pride and humility. We expect and demand humility in almost every area of life: what really matters is what is objectively true, not what one of us happens to think is true. We ourselves are not what is important. But when it comes to ultimate questions, we set aside humility and place ourselves at the center of the universe. This temptation to pride is common, even to believers in God.
One of the basic assumptions of this series is that truth is not relative, and that Orthodox Christianity represents the fullness of the truth—the locus of the revelation of God in Christ. From that basic position, we will analyze various religious groups and their teachings, seeing what we share and where we differ. Because truth is not relative, all human beings must be willing to set aside what we would prefer to be true and embrace what really is true, changing ourselves, our attitudes, and our beliefs whenever necessary.
It has become unfashionable in our time to speak as though a particular belief is true and another is false. And yet even within my lifetime, I recall quite clearly how many religious groups in our culture used to think of their own beliefs as true, and then logically conclude that any other beliefs were therefore false.
Today however, this conclusion—and especially speaking publicly about it—is seen as not being loving (a word now used to mean nice). Indeed, in our time a public disagreement about religion is sometimes considered offensive. Living in an age of political correctness, we are given new pieces of cultural theology to profess:
All religions are basically the same.
What matters is living a good life.
We all worship the same God.
Religion is a private matter.
Don’t impose your beliefs on others.
No religion has everything right.
We’ll find out what’s true when we get to heaven.
These kinds of statements have one common assumption behind them: that beliefs about God and the ultimate nature of reality are not very important. That is why they should not be discussed publicly. That is why their details do not really matter. That is why we should not try to win people over to our faith. There is no such thing as truth. Everything is relative—except, perhaps, that everything is relative.
Yet for nearly everything else in life—whether it is politics, healthcare, or even the scoring records of your favorite football team—we demand seriousness, detail, and accuracy. Distracted by such transient things as these, our culture has successfully ignored a basic syllogism:
If there really is a God, then who he is and what he might want from us are more important than anything else in the universe.
As believers, we are not in the nice business. We are in the truth business. The purpose of this series is to examine the differences between the faith of the Orthodox Christian Church and the faiths of other Christian communions and of non-Christians.
Obviously, as an Orthodox priest, it is my belief that the Orthodox Christian faith is uniquely true. I would not be Orthodox if I did not believe it was the truth revealed by God in his son Jesus Christ. My faith is such that, if I encountered a part of the Orthodox faith that made no sense to me or struck me as incorrect, then it is I who needs to be reformed, not the Orthodox Church.
Indeed, this is the view of all classical, traditional religions, rather than the modern consumer-style understanding of faith which is popular in our culture—that each person is the arbiter of what is true and false, that he can pick and choose what bits of spirituality and belief he likes from a sort of religious buffet.
The nature of truth, however, is that it is true, no matter what anyone says about it. In the face of truth, there is no opinion. Most people already believe this, but do not often apply it to the question that matters most: who is God and what does he want from me?
There is good and there is evil. There is truth and there is falsehood. These basic assumptions, based on our own everyday experience, should inform all of our thoughts and actions regarding what is ultimately true.
If you have ever visited the website Facebook, then you probably know that users can put together profiles of themselves detailing various bits of information about who they are and what they do. One of the details that can be specified is labeled Religious Views. This is what most people think of when they think about religion, that it is a question of views, that religion is an opinion you hold, something you think. (Notice that Facebook does not even use the term beliefs.)
For most traditional religions, however, faith is not merely a set of views; rather, religious faith is a whole way of life, a purposeful way of living that has a set of goals at its heart which inform everything in that way of life.
In this, Facebook is representing a secularist philosophy, which is not so much an outright denial of spiritual truths as it is a compartmentalization of elements of life into neat categories which have nothing to do with each other. In this box, I keep my views on economics. In this one are my views on cable television. In this one I have my reading preferences, and in this one I keep my religion. Even the word religion itself—not a word I prefer to use in regards to Orthodox Christianity—means something quite different. The Latin religio means reconnection. To build and rebuild links.
What you are trying to link yourself to will vary from one religion to another, but the key is that there is something happening there. It is not just something you think or agree with, and it is not just about you; there is an Other.
Here is a fundamental truth about all religious practice: what you believe and what you do make a difference. If this is true, then we must also accept that if you change what you believe and what you do, you will get different results.
This is true of everything in life. My brother is a chemical engineer. My sister is a biologist. (You may wonder what happened to me.) They know this to be true. If you do not believe them, ask a doctor. Ask a physicist, ask a psychologist, ask a brick layer, ask a janitor. They will all tell you that what you believe and what you do make a difference. If you change those things, you will get different results.
What concerns me is that we often do not apply this basic principle to what matters most in human life. In a religious context, this fundamental truth means different religions—because they believe differently and practice differently—will yield different results.
Sometimes those different results are all put under one label like salvation. But what does it mean to be saved? To a Hindu practicing yoga, salvation means release from the physical body and being absorbed into the oblivion of the universe; the annihilation of individual personhood in Nirvana. I guarantee that is not what salvation means to a Baptist. But what a Baptist means by salvation and what an Orthodox Christian means by it are not the same thing either. As such, the members of those different faiths have different methods of trying to get where they want to go.
Furthermore, because there exists truth and falsehood, and because most religions have traditionally claimed that their faith was true and that others are at least somewhat false, that means that some religious believers are fundamentally mistaken about their beliefs and practices. This means they are not going to get the results that they think they will.
In the Orthodox Christian faith, our one and only purpose in life is to become more like Jesus Christ. Whether we go to heaven when we die is only one element in a much larger picture. That picture, ultimately, is of the Holy Trinity.
An Orthodox Christian’s life has one goal: union with the Holy Trinity—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the One God who created all things. The path to that union is Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the second Person of the Holy Trinity. Salvation is the attainment of eternal life.
In John 17, in his prayer to the Father before his crucifixion, Jesus defines what this means. He said, “And this is life eternal: that they might know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” To know God—that is what eternal life means, not just living forever.
He later prays, “And the glory you have given me, I have given them. That they may be one, even as we are one; I in them, and you in me, that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that you have sent me, that you have loved them as you have loved me.”
Thus, in the Orthodox Christian faith, being saved—having eternal life—means knowing God in Jesus Christ. It also means receiving from Jesus the glory he has from his Father. In reality, salvation is about far, far more than getting out of hell when we die. It is a deep, intimate knowledge of God: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In this deep knowledge—which is experience rather than accumulation of facts—those who are being saved receive the very glory of God. Going to heaven or hell at the moment of death simply means that our experience of God in this life continues into the next, although amplified. If we love God and know him deeply, our experience in the next life will be endless intense joy. If we reject God in this life—or simply ignore him—our experience of his love will be alien to us and felt as suffering. He pours out the same love on everyone. Some want it, some don’t.
This is why doctrine matters. This is why heresy is so very dangerous. All of our doctrine is oriented toward an intimate knowledge of God, because the character of our knowledge of him will determine our eternal vector, our perpetual experience in the life to come. This knowledge depends on our adherence to living out correct doctrine in our daily lives.
Let us say I was a practicing homosexual. This is not true, but because some people believe it, it affects their relationship with me. Because I am a priest, it may even affect relationships between members of my parish community. My relationships with many people would break down. Some people may even approve of this and try to get closer to me, but those relationships would also be based on a distorted reality. Those outside our parish may hear the rumor and never visit or consider joining. Those closest to me—my wife and family—will have their lives badly disrupted if they believe the rumor. It will destroy my family life, which would reverberate across our extended family, friends, the parish unity, and so on—all because of a false belief about who I am.
Perhaps the rumor is not so serious. Let us say it was believed I had a drinking problem. The effects of that rumor would likely be just as serious, though nowhere near as explosive. In any case, all of those relationships are affected, not merely by the moral actions of those involved—that is, whether they have done good or evil to each other—but by what they believed about each other and how they act on those beliefs.
Magnify all of those effects by the worship and the knowledge of the very God of the universe. Some false doctrines about him can cause unimaginable spiritual destruction. Others are of lesser effect. But all of them, to one degree or another, take us away from a true, pure knowledge of the only true God. That will affect how and whether we receive his glory, and how we experience him in the next life.
Living a moral life according to the law of God is indeed critical for life in Christ, but it is not enough. Religion is not just ethics. We must know God for who he truly is. This is why doctrine matters.