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“What truly makes Orthodox Christianity different? Is it simply that we do not have a pope? That we preserve ancient liturgical forms and rituals? That married men can be priests?
The question does not lend itself to a simple answer because the reality is complex. In fact, the essence of Orthodox uniqueness lies far beyond these fundamentals… It is hidden, subtle, deeper than the outward forms, customs, or specific theological beliefs that manifest the divergence. The Orthodox phronema (“mentality,” “stance,” or “approach”) is the foundation of Orthodox Christianity. It is usually unexpressed and unexamined, and rarely discussed, but it affects not simply what we believe and why but — above all else — how we think.”1
It needs to be said at the outset that Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind, by Dr. Eugenia Constantinou, is not exactly a book of Orthodox theology (though it contains much). It might be described as a book about Orthodox theology. But it is better described as a book about how to begin to think and understand like an Orthodox Christian, and so to understand Orthodox theology, while avoiding traps, heresies, and dangers along the way.
The book is guide to understanding how the very culture we live in is imbued with a mindset (a phronema, to use the Greek idiom the author introduces) and spirit that is very often hostile to, or at least at odds with Orthodox Christianity. Even Western Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestent forms, has a very different mindset. In this the book is a valuable guide for converts, inquirers, and even cradle-Orthodox who may not be aware how different that understanding is. But the book is of great value even for non-Orthodox Christians, for much of it is a guide for our times, where Christianity is in retreat, and where the internet can deceive us all into thinking ourselves experts after half an hour on Wikipedia, or lure us towards extremists and zealots who seek division. Much of Dr. Constantinou’s book should indeed be read by all Christians who could find themselves arguing theology with strangers through a keyboard.
Perhaps you have had the experience of hiking in the woods, or navigating at sea or in a complex network of swamps and streams. It’s not good to have a map with you if you do not know how to use the map, and how to use a compass. And neither the map nor the compass will be of any use if you cannot determine where you even are on that map, or to gauge if you have the right map in the first place. And you had better know where you should be heading too or it’s all a hopeless endeavor. If someone has given you a false map and bad directions, and pointed you towards a swamp instead of the welcoming lodge that is your real goal, are you wise or experienced enough to avoid the deceptions?
If the path to following Christ is a narrow road in a wide and often treacherous land, then Orthodox theology is something of a map of what parts are known, and what roads are surest. One might say Dr. Constantinou is helping the reader to understand the key to the wider map, and how to know whether the map one has is even valid, for the best map would only make sense to one who already understood what it meant. And yet, as the author notes early on, those who avoid “dabbling in theology” while living with the right phronema, often more readily stay on the right path in faith and piety because they are rightly oriented.
I am more educated than my ancestors, but I am certain that my mother and grandmothers far surpassed me in piety, devotion, faith, and wisdom. Our culture is coarse. The fear of God is absent from public discourse.2
So what is an Orthodox phronema – an Orthodox mindset – in the first place? How does it differ from, and indeed often conflict with a Western phronema? Dr. Constantinou uses the early chapters to first explain the concept of phronema – it is a Greek idiom which, at the basic level, is a mindset or way of thinking, but this is somewhat incomplete for we do not simply think, we also act. Moreover, we act and think and emote in patterns and routines that can run so deep that we could not adequately state why we are doing these things, or even be aware of them unless faced with others whose phronema is at odds with our own. And we all have a phronema in which our nationality, family history (for good or ill), schooling, and faith are layered and mixed – think of how you and siblings or close cousins more readily share an intimate understanding of each other than with outsiders, and how, when traveling abroad, you can often recognize others from “back home” just by comportment and body language, before any word is ever spoken. This is all part of our phronema – it shapes our thinking and reasoning, and sets our unspoken biases towards certain answers before we even begin to form the questions.
An Orthodox Christian phronema will differ, at times markedly, from a western Christian one. In fact, Dr. Constantinou often describes the Orthodox phronema in ways similar to how Orthodox Christians discuss God: apophatically – that is in the negative, what something is not. At times she clarifies by saying it is like a middle way, avoiding extremes, and avoiding being boxed in by definitions or by overly rigid ecclesial structures and hierarchies. Aside from the Nicene Creed, there are no other confessions or statements of faith beyond what is expressed in the liturgies and the Bible itself. There is no unitary catechism either.
The Orthodox Church does not offer exact definitions and explanations for theological mysteries. The Orthodox Church has always preferred apophatic theology, that is, expressing what God is not, since God is beyond description. Orthodox theologians know what they can speak of or write about what they must not. They consistently cite the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the Church Fathers, the holy canons, and the decisions of the ecumenical councils. All these are important aspects of Tradition and as such carry authority. This, in itself, creates our phronema. Since Orthodoxy does not routinely generate official and contemporary authoritative definitions and statements, Orthodox theologians turn again and again to the ancient.
Even when more recent luminaries are recognized as Fathers, such as St. John of Kronstadt (d. 1909), they are read, cited, and acknowledged as Fathers because they faithfully reflected the thought of earlier Fathers and did not deviate from the Tradition.3
The Orthodox Church also avoids reliance on deductive reasoning, for human reason is faulty, and God is beyond the capacity for human understanding. Applying logic too rigidly, using purely human rationality, puts God in a box. This is at the root of the break between the Orthodox and Roman Catholicism. But by the same token, in avoiding extremes the Orthodox phronema rejects untested “new” revelations and claims of spiritual ecstasy, or independent claims to spiritual authority in the interpretation of scripture and dogma, which is at the heart of the impasse with the various Protestant denominations. All of these matters are discussed in great detail the first part of the book, as is much more besides – more than could be reasonably covered in a review. But any reader will be well rewarded as Dr. Constantinou guides them along, discussing how the Orthodox understand scripture, tradition, and what it really means to live as an Orthodox Christian in the Church. And it is in that ongoing life of prayer, liturgy, askesis, feasts, and fasts that one ultimately acquires the mature phronema.
Having educated the reader on what it means to have an Orthodox phronema in the first half of the book, Dr. Constantinou turns to what is in many respects a harder matter in the second part. Orthodox Christians are a small minority in the American religious landscape – so small, in fact, that in many surveys of Christian denominations, the Orthodox may not even get a mention. This means that an Orthodox Christian may often find that he must explain himself, yet he will quickly find himself fielding questions, or responding to prejudices, that are difficult to address as the basis is radically different. And of course, the online world (where you are in fact reading this) provides no end of temptation. Put simply, in very little time at all, one can find oneself in the position of playing the theologian, and this is perilous. Not only does one run the risk of being wrong, but of misleading others, or being drawn into unnecessary fights.
However, as noted earlier, this section, in particular, is valuable for anyone drawn into online arguments, be they Orthodox or not. Dr. Constantinou draws on advice going back to the earliest days of Christianity, on the wisdom of entering arguments where one’s knowledge or training are lacking, or where one’s motivations for arguing are suspect, or where even having the argument is unnecessary or dangerous. All too often, in reading these sections, I found myself personally embarrassed as I well recognized my own mistakes. The author recounts online and in-classroom arguments of her own to illustrate her points, and this advice is no mere abstraction – it comes from hard experience, and applies just as well to arguing over practically any subject. There are many pitfalls to avoid.
Who is this book ultimately for? For Orthodox converts and inquirers, Thinking Orthodox is a gentle but firm guide into understanding why older ways of thinking need to be changed to better enter into the life of the Church. For cradle Orthodox, the book puts into words why so often the rest of the world, and even the rest of the Christian world, finds Orthodoxy difficult to understand. For non-Orthodox Christians, the book likewise illuminates why theological arguments that seem airtight are still utterly unconvincing to the Orthodox, or are perhaps even ignored as arguing about the wrong things. And for anyone who finds themselves arguing online, particularly on theology, the entire second part of the book is an encouragement, a chastisement, and a guide all at once. The book is well ordered and organized, and easy to read, but it is challenging and not to be read lightly.
Nota Bene: Ancient Faith Publishing provided me a copy of this book for review.
Constantinou, Eugenia Scarvelis, Ph. D. Thinking Orthodox: Understanding and Acquiring the Orthodox Christian Mind. Ancient Faith Publishing, Chesterton, IN, 2020.
Available at: http://store.ancientfaith.com
1 Page 15. Emphasis my own.
2 Page 21.
3 PP. 61-62Published in