Thursday, February 17, 2011

An interview with "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy" author

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick is a well known host of the podcasts Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and Roads From Emmaus, writes at his weblog, is active within the Society for Orthodox Christian History in the Americas (SOCHA), and is a popular lecturer. He has just completed a new book entitled 'Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith.' Fr. Andrew was kind enough to answer a few questions about his upcoming publication.

Your podcast 'Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy' continues to be very popular at Ancient Faith Radio even a year after the final installment in the series. What prompted you to write this book? How does the book differ from the podcast?

A few months after the final installment of the podcast, Conciliar Press (which falls under the Conciliar Media umbrella with Ancient Faith Radio) approached me and asked if I would be interested in turning the podcast into a book, based on the attention the series was getting and the interest in the subject indicated by that interest.

I was honestly a little surprised at the request, but I agreed to it for the same reasons I worked on the original lectures: I'm not aware of any other material of this sort and scope available in English. I doubt that my work is the best that will ever or could ever be produced along these lines, but because I couldn't find anyone else making this stuff for me that I could just use in classes, I figured I'd have to give it a shot myself. I hope it's useful to other folks besides just me.

The book is not merely transcripts of the podcasts. It represents a significant revision and expansion of the original manuscripts, as well as being organized a little differently. Readers will find a lot of material in there not covered in the podcasts, including some more religious groups and an appendix on atheism and agnosticism. Whether readers are familiar with the podcasts or not, the book should be a useful stand-alone resource.

Who do you think the target audience is for this book? Laypeople interested in apologetics? Inquirers from other religious backgrounds?

My primary intended audience is ordinary Orthodox Christians who are interested in the question of how our faith differs from other faiths. That said, I know that there may be some apologists for whom the book could serve as an introduction to the major issues, and I am sure that it is likely that folks who are interested in Orthodox Christianity may read it, as well. I tried to keep all of these people in mind when putting it together.

Some would say that all religions are aiming for the same thing, that different faiths and denominations within those faiths are just different expressions of the same search for understanding. But, on reflection, after having completed your podcast and now this book, would you say that this is true? Are all religions seeking the same thing? Are their goals the same?

Even just a cursory examination of what various religions say about themselves proves that they're not aiming at the same thing! I think such a statement -- that all religions are aimed in the same direction -- can only be based in ignorance (honest ignorance, I hope). Why? Because a Hindu Yogin who is trying to achieve oblivion of self in Nirvana is not trying to achieve the same thing as a new Southern Baptist who walks down the aisle to get saved. Likewise, a Muslim working to achieve submission ("islam") to God is not doing the same thing as a Unitarian who may not even believe there is a God.

That said, of course one may draw out certain elements which are common to many (if not all) religions. But such elements are so minimal and broad as to be almost meaningless in terms of the daily spiritual life of the serious believer. And if one is not serious, well, then what's the point, really?

This brings up the topic of syncretism and ecumenism. Do you think greater understanding about non-Orthodox faiths is a reliable defense against conflation of (as is often spoken of) concepts and practices of Western Christian patrimony, but also from the encroachment of things like Eastern mysticism? Is a person who has a clear understanding of what separates us less apprehensive of Orthodox involvement in ecumenical efforts?

I'm a big believer in what I like to call "Ecumenism with a Gun." That is, we should be engaging other Christians and non-Christian religions vigorously, but we should be doing it with a firm commitment to the doctrines and practices of our faith. I expect nothing less from those other believers, as well. To be frank, the hand-holding, "Kumbaya"-singing spirit of syncretism is neither particularly inspiring nor even useful. What's the point? If it's to get together and have coffee and doughnuts, I think I'd rather do that with the tax collectors and sinners, thank you. But if we're interested in the Truth and how the Truth calls us to repent and conform ourselves to what we encounter there, then that's something different.

That doesn't mean we need to be mean or to attack people, but it does mean we shouldn't apologize for our faith or downplay the parts that some folks may find uncomfortable. It's precisely in discomfort in the face of the truth that we actually have the possibility for repentance. And if we do not make clear what we believe and have a clear sense of what other religions teach, then that encounter will never be possible in any dialogue, debate, etc. If we really love people, then we'll do nothing less. Love demands truth.

At a pastoral level do you think familiarity with other faiths is helpful when speaking with inquirers? Is it beneficial to see things through their lenses as it were to help them come to Orthodoxy or do you think starting fresh is a better methodology? Said another way, is it better to see their backgrounds as preparatory or is it better to start from the ground up, tabula rasa in catechetical efforts? As people move from church to church looking for something that "suits" them it would seem probable that they would pick up beliefs from a variety of sources building their own amalgamated faith without consciously building their own "cafeteria" religion.

I think both are called for. On the one hand, especially when we are witnessing and explaining our faith to others, we should try to have some sense of the theological language they're already speaking. That will make it easier for our witness to be clearly understood. Anything someone already believes can be used as an introduction to the Orthodox faith. No one can be wrong all of the time! St. Justin Martyr said essentially this with his teaching about the Logos (Word of God) being in seed form among non-Christians.

Yet at the same time, especially when it comes time for catechesis, I believe it's critical that we not treat the Orthodox faith as though it's "whatever Christian stuff you already have, plus some icons and incense and a stronger emphasis on theosis." It's not. The sad reality is that so many people even within Orthodox churches are so badly catechized that we have to learn how to begin again at Square One, asking such questions as "How do we know God?" or "Why should we worship Him?" It may be at some point those questions were givens, but now they are not. Many Orthodox parishes are conducting more and more adult baptisms, and many of those adults are people who have never heard the Gospel, even in a distorted, heterodox form.

I believe that it's time that we Orthodox renew our commitment to the actual Gospel of Jesus Christ, the core message of the Orthodox Christian faith. If we don't, if all we try to preach is "spirituality" and not the crucified Christ, then we are merely purveyors of a religion and not preachers of the Messiah. We cannot assume that people know what the Gospel is about, even if they have a Christian background. Indeed, because there are now so many different "gospels" being preached, it might be best to assume that they've never really heard the true one. I don't think it's too much to say that we are living in an age of "other gospels" (cf. 2 Cor. 11:4, Gal. 1:8-9).

Returning to the book, how is it organized? Does it share a similar structure with the podcast? Are there any extras we can look forward to?

The book is organized similarly to the podcast, though there are a few differences, mostly to adapt it to a printed format rather than as a spoken lecture. The final two chapters are reversed in order, putting non-mainstream Christians before non-Christians. There are also a number of things that in the podcast were essentially just lists with extemporaneous commentary that have been converted into a more flowing text.

That said, as I mentioned earlier, this is not just a transcript of the podcast. For one thing, the overall text is more than 20% larger. I've also added in three religions in the non-Christian section (Mandaeism, Yazidism and Jainism) that I didn't cover in the podcast, and readers will have access to appendices which were handed out at the actual classes but obviously weren't read into the microphone, such as suggestions for further reading, a timeline of Orthodox and Roman Catholic relations, and quick references to Orthodox doctrine and ancient heresies. In addition, I composed a whole appendix on atheism and agnosticism, as I mentioned above.

Do you think the Orthodox seminaries in the US prepare future priests for the people (a panoply of denominations, faiths, and variably "unchurched" inquirers) who will walk into their parishes?

I don't really have enough experience with all the seminaries to answer this adequately. I can say from my anecdotal experience, however, mainly in talking with serving clergy, that there seems to be very little being done in the seminaries to prepare clergy to deal with the theological worlds of North America.

Even our ecumenical engagement is, on the whole, rather watery. Yes, there are joint charitable projects we can work on, and some of the joint statements of agreed doctrine have some useful elements to them, but where are the public debates? Why don't we sponsor symposia and other public events precisely to give a critical examination to the ways in which Orthodox doctrine differs from and has criticisms of heterodox doctrine? Yes, there are some polemical books and weblogs out there, but most of them are essentially convert stories, which of course have their value but do not usually represent a full engagement with the theologies that surround us.

We are still almost invisible to most people in North America, and I think that is largely because we're not engaged with who they are and what they believe. If I were creating a seminary curriculum (and we can all thank God I'm not!), courses in comparative theology, world religions and apologetics would be mandatory for anyone even contemplating ordination. Our holy fathers in the faith never had any problem engaging the theologies around them, and neither should we, if we have even an ounce of their spirit.

That said, I think many in our seminary communities are very much aware of these shortcomings and are working to address them. Perhaps the Committees for Ecumenical Relations and Theological Education in the Assembly of Bishops will also take up these questions as they work to forge a common vision and purpose for the Church on this continent.

Much of the media coverage today about religion, when it is not questioning traditional teachings on moral issues, is about the environment. You mentioned Buddhism and Jainism which both hold radically different views on man's relationship with creation from what a Christian might believe. What are your thoughts on environmentalism as popularly presented today or as it is seen in other faiths compared to the concepts of dominion and stewardship found in Orthodoxy?

I didn't cover this topic in particular in the book, but I have talked about it in some podcasts that are online in the "Roads From Emmaus" series. In short, though, I believe both the major popular models of environmentalism have failed -- the "liberal" side essentially seeks to remove man from the earth, while the "conservative" one looks at the earth as simply resources to be owned and managed. Yet Orthodoxy has always regarded the whole Creation as being permeated with the Creator, which makes the whole cosmos into a kind of church. Such a realization does not align either with the secular, liberal environmentalism with its inherent misanthropy, nor does it align with the "stewardship" model common even among some Christian churches, because neither approach looks at the created world as essentially the sacrament that it is, that man as its priest is to offer it up to God for His return to us as a vessel of sanctification.

When can we expect to see this available for purchase? Where will we be able to buy it from? Do you foresee a Kindle version?

The latest I've heard from Conciliar Press is that the expected release date is sometime in May 2011. I'm not sure what their marketing plans are, exactly, but it's supposed to be included in their next catalog, and I imagine it should be available through the normal outlets that sell their work. I have no idea whether there is an e-book version planned, but I do know that Conciliar has been looking into doing that with some of their work.

Thank you for your time, Father. It was a pleasure to discuss this intriguing topic and I look forward to reading the book when it goes to press.

Thank you! It's been an honor to be involved in this work. I only hope that my part will contribute in some way to our own salvation and that of our communities.

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