There is a condition common among inquiring minds in which truth is perceived as a puzzle and individual dogmas the pieces that must be arranged and re-arranged until the puzzle is complete. Many of us who have come to the Orthodox faith from another, and in this I include myself, wrestled for many years with the puzzle pieces of our experiences or convictions, trying to fit them here or there, in this arrangement or that, but to no avail. Our decision to become Orthodox Christians was motivated by a desire to find a solution to the puzzle and a belief that the Church’s life and faith represented that solution in the fullest possible measure.
It may then have come as a disappointment, if not a shock, for our inquiring mind to find that the Orthodox Church lacked a clearly defined and easily accessible collection of teachings on the puzzle pieces that most troubled us. The confessions, catechisms, and exhaustive commentaries that had been the fuel of many a debate in our previous religious circles were entirely missing. We were assured that the Church’s teachers were unsurpassed in theological eloquence and that She was, Herself, the very pillar and ground of truth. We felt this in Her services: the elation felt on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the awe experienced at the Exultation of the Cross, the conviction on hearing St. John’s Paschal Homily. The answer to the puzzle was here, no doubt, but somehow our individual questions remained unanswered. Why? Why did the Church have a ready answer to the question of election, justification, the atonement, original sin, salvation, marriage, gender, and many more. Why did it seem that the Church Fathers were wholly ignorant to the import of these questions? Was there a deficiency in the scope of the Church’s dogmas? Was there a certain need for doctrinal and moral elaboration to meet the needs of modern inquiry?
I suspect that most inquiring minds are not too different than my own when I first encountered Dr. Christopher Veniamin. I arrived in his Patristics I class with what I imagined was a fairly coherent puzzle. Admittedly, a few pieces were missing, maybe one or two in the wrong place, but surely someone who had been personally acquainted with Elder Sophrony and St Porphyios would be able to complete the puzzle. What did Dr. Christopher do instead? He took the puzzle on which I had worked and re-worked, arranged and re-arranged for so many years and threw the pieces into a paper shredder.
Every conversation or class with Dr. Veniamin was like going to confession, the kind of confession that feels like major surgery, where you emerge both terribly sore and wondrously light at the same time. He was never content to allow his students to simply read the Church Fathers, he wanted us as persons to be shaped and molded by what we encountered. Theological inquiry for our feared and revered professor was never an objective, academic exercise, it was participation in a vision that demanded that our whole being become transformed. In practice, this often felt as though our brains and our bowels had been sent through a blender.
It was only after spending several semesters in class and finishing my thesis under his direction that (only a week or so before graduation) it clicked: I had been working on the wrong puzzle this whole time!
This is the puzzle to which I had time and time again sought to find a solution, the puzzle that the Church Fathers seemed to ignore and the Church to offer no coherent answer:
This is the puzzle that Dr. Venaimin (and the chorus of Church Fathers) have been trying to present to our little, inquiring minds:
The point should be obvious. I will only suggest that those of us who have made the decision to enter the Orthodox Church should examine whether or not we have simply substituted one 25 piece puzzle for another. It is not as though questions relating to doctrine or morality are trivial, but the process by which we understand them are radically different than our previous thought processes, just as putting together a 25 piece lion puzzle takes a radically different approach then when one wishes to embark on a 1000+ piece 3D puzzle of Neuschwanstein.
Perhaps, in a subsequent article we can examine the process of theology more closely.