The Internet has been a great tool for exposing people to Eastern Orthodoxy. People who have never heard of the Orthodox Church now have the ability to read the writings of the Church Fathers. They can speak to an Orthodox priest, and even to watch a livestream of the Divine Liturgy.
But with this accessibility comes the egalitarian nature of the Internet. Online, all opinions are valid, and everyone is an expert on everything. The anonymity afforded by social media allows all manner of vitriol between people who will never meet in real life.
It’s hard to say whether the Internet will be a net positive for Orthodoxy. But one thing is certainly true:
The Internet is not your priest.
Internet Orthodoxy vs. Real Orthodoxy
We can only truly experience Orthodoxy through the life of the Church. That is to say, by attending the services of the Church and by living out the rhythms of the church year. All the study and online debate in the world is no substitute for the relational nature of Orthodoxy. And discussing the Eucharist is certainly no substitute for receiving it.
It remains to be seen what the Internet does to increase the number of people investigating Orthodoxy, beyond a casual perusal online. COVID-19 has created the opportunity to watch the Divine Liturgy without actually having to go to a church. Whether this is good or bad is hard to say.
With a wealth of online study aids and forums, Internet Orthodoxy becomes an echo chamber where self-appointed experts hold court. Someone with no training in theology can spout opinions without any reprisal. This can do much more harm than good. Someone investigating Orthodoxy can be discouraged before they ever make the journey to attend the Liturgy in person.
Internet Orthodoxy feeds our ego by making experts of anyone with a good connection and access to a few Orthodox reference sites. For converts in particular, the danger is that we become well read in Orthodoxy without being well fed. We presume to teach before we have even begun to learn.
Is there any wonder that Protestants converting to Orthodoxy bring with them an insistence on being heard on doctrinal or pastoral matters?
Converting without Converting
As a former Protestant myself, I’ve been through that phase of my journey to Orthodoxy. I’ve thrown my opinions out to the world without a solid grounding. My ego gets the better of me, and my priest has lovingly corrected me.
Protestants – like I used to be – sometimes have an issue with this. If my priest doesn’t say or do the things I like, I’ll just find a priest who will! This is the sort of thinking that leads to a church on every corner, with disgruntled former members church-shopping like they would for a bargain on groceries.
The problem with pontificating online about Orthodox customs or praxis is that it eliminates the need to submit to the teaching and guidance of a spiritual father. Without that experienced instruction, pride and vanity creeps in, and we begin to think we know all there is to know about Orthodoxy. The intellect replaces the nous, and defeating our opponents in debate replaces the defeating of our passions.
Americans are using to getting their own way, and many Protestants are accustomed to acting as their own priest. Studying the Bible on your own – and drawing your own conclusions about its meaning – are part and parcel of American Protestantism.
When we try to apply this to Orthodoxy, we run contrary to the tradition that has guided the Church. Our preferences become dogma, and our personal opinions become Tradition with a capital-T.
One thing is for sure: the Church has been through persecution and trouble before, and is still standing. It has prevailed against heresy and attempts to stamp it out. The Church will still be standing when this pandemic passes into history, and will remain when some other technology surpasses the Internet.
It’s also true that mankind will still be battling the sin of pride, and will find safe harbor in the Church founded by Christ and preserved by the Holy Spirit.
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