Here we present the ‘Preface‘ from the book “The Orthodox Church – An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture“, by John Anthony McGuckin. We consider it a good suggestion for any English-speaker interested to learn about Orthodoxy quickly and safely.
In the course of my own winding, pilgrim’s, road to Orthodoxy it was the tangible sense of beauty that served as a constant allure. It was the radiant kindness of a few luminous souls, several of them bishops and priests, that made flesh for me what I had been searching for, not so much the zealotry that many were eager to offer me as their witness to the truth. Years later I came across a saying of St Symeon the New Theologian to the effect that a candle can only be lit from the flame of another living candle, and it struck me as exactly apposite. When Truth is a living person, we can no longer try to make it synonymous with mere accuracy. What is at stake is more a question of authenticity. Orthodoxy is often approached by those outside it as a system of doctrines. But it is far more than this, and this is why a book of systematic theology does not quite capture the reality. Orthodoxy is the living mystery of Christ’s presence in the world: a resurrectional power of life. It cannot be understood, except by being fully lived out; just as Christ himself cannot be pinned down, analysed, digested, or dismissed, by the clever of this world, whom he seems often to baffle deliberately1. His message is alive in the world today as much as when he first preached it. The Orthodox Church is, essentially, his community of disciples trying to grow into his image and likeness, by their mystical assimilation to the Master who abides among them.
This book is an attempt to explain that mystery of church in a variety of approaches: theological, historical, liturgical, spiritual, political, and moral. The union of all these avenues is difficult to effect intellectually, but is much easier to accomplish organically.
Indeed it is clear that the Christian life itself, in its deepest and most authentic manifestations, is exactly a matter of this synthesis: this ‘coming together’ or ‘coming home’ that is sought after as the life of virtue that brings peace to the soul and the mind. The Fathers of the Church tended to refer to the Christian faith as ‘our philosophy’, which exactly caught the aspect of Christianity as a fundamental lifestyle; a way of being, as much as a way of thinking.
This book, then, has been designed to assist Orthodox to a renewed appreciation of their faith, at once ‘ever ancient and ever new’, as well as to introduce it in a way that could be of benefit to readers who are not overly familiar with Orthodox life and practice. The book’s imagined readership is a double one: English-speaking readers who have come to Orthodoxy by the grace of God and wish to learn more of their own tradition; and those who have an ecumenical interest in the Orthodox Church, and wish to question it about a range of concerns. I hope this volume will serve as a useful dialogue partner on the pilgrimage trails of each of its readers.
The book is deeply concerned with theological doctrine, but not to the exclusion of other important matters. There are some very good treatises of Orthodox theology available2. A common denominator among them is that they are all heavily based on the Scriptures and the Fathers3, and I hope that this study will also pass that litmus test. It has been arranged in three chief divisions: the historical context of the church in its long pilgrimage (chapter 1), the theological task proper, namely the doctrine of God (chapters 2 and 3), and finally the several aspects of the economy of salvation; that is, the impact of God’s Kingdom in the world, and among the communion of the saints (chapters 4 through 7).
I am grateful to the Henry Luce III Foundation of America for its generous award of the Luce Fellowship in 2006 which allowed me the space to complete such a large project. I am also indebted to a number of readers, all of them skilled commentators in Orthodox theology and ecclesiastical affairs, and friends of long standing, whose advice, disagreements, and encouragement have helped me make this better than it was. Orthodox faith is one and harmonious. It is my trust that this book conforms to that unity of the faith. Such was my constant intention. Orthodox culture, however, is, like any family: subject to many discussions, and often loud disagreements, over the interpretation of many things. My brothers and sisters who have dialogued with me are examples of how such a conversation can be conducted in love and mutual respect, for the greater clarification of the truth. It is a rare charism in a loud and aggressively superficial world.
1. Matt. 11.25.
2. Beginning with the two most outstanding patristic exemplars: St Gregory of Nazianzus’ Five Theological Orations, and St John of Damascus’ Orthodox Faith, both of which are accessible online. In terms of modern literature one can think of Staniloae (1998, 2005), Popovitch (1997), Pomazansky (1997), Tsirpanlis (1991), Lossky (1978), and Yannaras (1991) as six easily accessible examples in differing tonalities, and with varying depths of profundity.
3. A word that designates the early generations of saints and theologians (often bishops) who defended the Orthodox faith and
articulated its inner spirit.