Eastern Orthodoxy and the Lure of Epistemological Romanticism

Last Sunday I left a comment on a post that appeared on the Orthodox and Heterodoxy website, an Ancient Faith Radio blog that I sometimes contribute to. The post that inspired my comment was Richard Barrett’s excellent article ‘Orthodoxy and the Problem of Choice: Converting Out of Postmodern Pluralism.’

My comment, like Barrett’s original post, concerned conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy by Americans, drawing on my own experience as a convert to Orthodoxy. I’ve expanded upon my remarks below because I want my readers, many of whom are Eastern Orthodox, to have an opportunity to interact with my observations and concerns.

A Puzzled Seeker

When I was exploring Eastern Orthodoxy as a seeker, one of the things that confused me was why people kept giving me resources to make an informed judgment about the claims of the Orthodox Church. I was referred to Ancient Faith Radio, to the writings of the church fathers, to history books and all manner of resources. This confused me. The reason this confused me was not because I eschewed making a well-informed judgment on the claims of the Orthodox church. Rather, the confusion lay in the fact that some of the same people who were giving me these resources were also telling me that I couldn’t trust my thinking. At least half a dozen people shared with me how they had themselves converted to Orthodoxy only after recognizing that their personal understanding or “private judgment” was utterly unreliable. (It should be pointed out that by “private judgment” they were not referring merely to the normativity of an individual’s judgment of matters ecclesiastical, which we can refer to as PJ1. Private judgment in this sense should rightly be regarded as defective. Rather, they were using “private judgment” to refer more broadly to the notion that each individual has to meet epistemological conditions for their knowledge claims, what we may call PJ2. In theological discussion on a lay level, Protestants and Orthodox alike use “private judgment” to refer both to PJ1 and PJ2. In this article, when I critique the attack against “private judgment” and sympathize for those protestants who defend it, I only have in mind PJ2, as the context of my remarks should make clear. Some of my critics have been uncomfortable for me even calling PJ2 “private judgment” at all, but I do so on the grounds that this is how the term is often used in theological discussion on a lay level.) This problem is encapsulated by one popular Orthodox book that is frequently used for catechism in numerous churches. The author of this catechism shares his own journey from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy, a journey that involved exploring numerous options. The author explains how at one point he realized that he was approaching his investigations in a truly Protestant fashion since he was still being “judge and jury” of what was compatible with his understanding of Christianity as he tried to adjudicate between the various options. He had an epiphany when he realized that “It is not my place to judge the apostolic tradition.” The only solution was to take himself out of the position of being in control and humbly submit to the teaching of the Orthodox church.

Of course, to say that the Orthodox church has binding authority, and that it is therefore an act of humility rather than an act of foolishness to submit to her, is itself to make a truth-claim that implicitly assumes that a prior adjudication has already taken place between the claims of the Orthodox church and bodies with competing authority claims. If we subscribe to a narrative that represents these acts of personal adjudication as somehow belying a Protestant mentality, then the processes that go into such adjudications must become unconscious and implicit to avoid obvious inconsistency.

I remember going out for coffee with the man who later became my godfather and sharing the basic problem. “If our private judgment is utterly unreliable,” I said, “then how can I possibly trust myself to make an accurate decision concerning the various historical issues at stake?” This was also a question I posed numerous times to my zealous Orthodox friends throughout the period in which I was exploring Orthodoxy, both in letters and in conversation. But I never got a satisfactory answer. It never seemed to occur to my well-meaning friends that there was anything inconsistent with claiming that the rejection of Orthodoxy was a lamentable act of “private judgment” while the decision to accept Orthodoxy was somehow immune from the inherent problems of private judgment.

Some of the people I talked to told me that “private judgment” was wrong when it came to the interpretation of scripture, but inescapable when it came to matters of history. But again this seemed bizarre: if I could not be expected to draw inferences for myself about the meaning of scripture (which is what I was told), then how could I trust myself to draw inferences on the much more complex historical issues that go into adjudicating between Eastern Orthodoxy and other groups that claim continuity to the early church?

For me this problem was more than purely intellectual. Looking back over my life as a Christian, I could remember numerous occasions where I fell into serious error, yet at the time was fully convinced that I was in the right. At each point, I had evaluated evidence and reached what I thought was a well-informed judgment, only to find out later that I had been dead wrong. If there was anything that my thirty-eight years of being a Christian had taught me, it was that I couldn’t trust my judgment, that I should have a healthy sense of humility about my own theological and historical convictions. This being the case, how could I trust myself to accurately assess all the evidence necessary for adjudicating between Orthodoxy and its competitors? Who was I to think that reading a smattering of books about Orthodoxy and some selected writings of church fathers qualified me to adjudicate between the claims of the Orthodox church and all the other traditions that also claim continuity to the early church? Given my lack of intellectual confidence, the notion that private judgment is inherently untrustworthy resonated deeply with me. Yet ironically, those who concurred the strongest with this healthy skepticism about our own judgments were the same ones who invited me to make personal judgments in favor of the Orthodox church when evaluating historical resources.

What Do We Mean When We Attack Private Judgment?

Now don’t get me wrong. There is a genuine critique of private judgment, as it is practiced in the protestant communions, that needs to be made. In reading Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I’ve been impressed by the way the doctrine of Sola Scriptura caused the Protestant movement to splinter, leading them to almost immediately start fighting amongst themselves about contested readings of scripture with the same virulence that they originally had for Roman Catholics. In restructuring the church’s relationship to Holy Tradition, the Latin West, and later Protestant Europe, did create the conditions for a certain level of hermeneutical anarchy by putting forward the normativity of an individual’s judgment in matters ecclesiastical. At first I assumed that this is all my Orthodox friends were referring to when they pontificated against the errors of ‘private judgment.’ However, it began to be clear to me that, on ground level, much of the anti-private-judgment polemics have a much larger application.  When apologists of Orthodoxy get on their soap box against “private judgment”, their attack is often leveled against the very process of an individual meeting the epistemological and psychological conditions for knowledge claims. Such widespread skepticism is frequently applied as a hammer with which to undercut Protestants’ basis for believing anything, while little explanation is offered for why Orthodoxy is somehow immune to the same deconstruction.

Orthodoxy in a Pluralist Society

Eastern Orthodoxy struggles to find its way in America, not simply because it is a minority faith, and not simply because there are so many religious competitors. Significant as these factors are, a more significant reason why Orthodoxy struggles on American soil is because it is completely antithetical to the values of individualism and personal autonomy that remain foundational to the psyche of the American people. The religion of personal autonomy finds significant clash, not just with specific teachings of Orthodoxy, but with its entire spirit, ethos and rationale. In traditional Orthodox countries, at least prior to the advent of hyper-pluralism, religion would have been something that was received. While a person would have an opportunity to either submit or reject the faith that was handed down, the categories of fashioning one’s own spirituality independent of inherited structures would have been largely absent. That is why it was important even for heretics to try to demonstrate that they were operating within the context of the traditional church. While a person might have been able to make a decision between Christianity and Islam (for example, during times of Islamic dominion), the nature of Christianity was not up for grabs; and least of all, it was not up to me to determine its essential nature. This contrasts sharply with the hyper-pluralist conditions we find in contemporary America, where choosing our brand of Christianity is rather like choosing what football team to support. In fact, the spiritual traveler who arrives at his or her own eclectic form of intensely personal religion (sometimes so personal that no one else in the world shares it) has become somewhat of an icon within popular American folklore. This spiritual individualism, even when it arrives at religious communions possessing historical integrity, affects the type of commitment we can give to the religious communities with which we choose to identify. We may submit to a certain ecclesial body, but in the back of our minds we know that we can always move on once it fails to suit our tastes. For those of us who have embraced Orthodoxy as converts, this creates a certain irony. In itself, Orthodoxy may stand against this type of hyper-pluralism to which we are accustomed, yet it comes to us within a hyper-pluralistic social context in which it exists as a range of options among many. As much as I might like to think of Orthodoxy as the default option once I have given up the project of creating a religion in my own image, the fact remains that I am still having to choose Orthodoxy as an individual, and that this choice is presumably based on the fact that Orthodoxy meets my needs and seems right to my private judgment. As Richard Barrett pointed out in the above article:

“The problem that Christianity in general has, not just the Eastern Orthodox Churches, is choice within the context of a pluralistic society. Religious authority, being something you have to “opt-in” for, is really no authority that is binding unless you want it to be. Christian pluralism means that being a Christian is something you choose, and even choosing to be a Christian means you can then tailor whatever version of Christianity you find compelling to what you believe are your own needs. You can dress it up however you want; magisterial authority, scriptural authority, authority of tradition, authority of the Church — your assent to that authority is entirely a matter of individual choice, and any argument for the validity of that authority is made entirely on individual, that is to say, subjective, and ultimately circular….”

Is there a solution to this? If I understand what Barrett is arguing, there is not. He effectively demonstrates that even Orthodoxy does not evacuate one from the burdens created by the hyper-pluralistic moment. But such burdens – though they seem like a big deal to us-  are no more different than what the early Christians had to contend with. After all, the early church existed in “the market place of ideas” when the apostles and their immediate successors were around, meaning that the earliest followers of Christ had to choose Christianity from a range of options. 

The-Eastern-Church-Spiritual-MarketplaceScholars who have studied the psychology and sociology of conversion reinforce the obvious point that converting to Orthodoxy is to make a choice within the context of the marketplace of ideas and that American Orthodoxy exists within the stream of American pluralism. Amy Slagle’s 2008 dissertation “’Nostalgia Without Memory’: A Case Study of American Converts to Eastern Orthodoxy in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (now available in book form as The Eastern Church in the Spiritual Marketplace: American Conversions to Orthodox Christianity), shows that “conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy must be understood within the framework of contemporary American religious and cultural life, not as simple reactions against it. She writes, :… the subjective self remains the sole seat of religious authority and enactment, even in an individual’s humble yielding to the moral and spiritual guidance of ‘ancient’ Christianities.” Slagle’s research was conducted with interviews of converts to Orthodoxy in the Pittsburgh, using a computerized qualitative data analysis program to code her interview transcripts. Her findings fit with what sociologists have found in other parts of America, namely that “vital components of choice-making, active knowledge acquisition and self-reflexivity lend shape to religious conversion.” She continues: “At each point in their conversions, from initial religious seeking to settling into life as Orthodox Christians, Orthodox converts in Pittsburgh consistently relate a kind of on-going negotiation between self and other, as they research religious differences and experiment with practices and dogmas. Such processes virtually ensure that converts arrive at the ecclesial doors of the Orthodox Church with these marketplace, choice-making skills and attitudes fully intact and ever more deeply engrained and habitualized in their lives.”

Welcome to hyper-pluralism. The fact is that because we do not live in sixteenth-century Russia or eighteenth-century Greece, we cannot evacuate ourselves from the epistemological burdens created by hyper-pluralism. Specifically, this means that converting to Orthodoxy involves the exercise of private judgment amidst a religious smorgasbord of options. To choose to embrace Orthodoxy is to make a choice that Orthodoxy and not Pentecostalism, Presbyterianism or Coptic Christianity, is what will best help me to grow closer to God. To choose to become Orthodox is to decide (based on my fallible and limited reason) that there is evidence that Orthodoxy has continuity with the teaching of the church fathers in a way that Eastern Catholicism or Oriental Christianity or reformed Presbyterianism does not. To choose to become Orthodox is to exercise judgment in concluding that the Holy Spirit is leading me here and not elsewhere.

These choices are inescapable for anyone living in a society dominated by pluralism, and to pretend this is not the case would be like living in a nation controlled by Muslims yet refusing to acknowledge the challenges that Muslim rule presents to Orthodox believers. This challenge created by pluralism is not epistemological (everyone, whether they live in a pluralistic society or not, bears an epistemological burden to some degree or another in finding the truth) but practical and psychological, in so far as it imposes constraints and body selection and can led to psychological confusion. Recognizing the reality of hyper-pluralism and the burden this creates for those who have not been raised Orthodox (and even for those who have), we can take action to buffer our children against the cacophony and confusion of pluralism. There are various ways we can do this. Visiting traditional Orthodox countries is one way. Visiting monasteries is another. Still another way is to naturally incarnate Orthodoxy in the life of the home to such an extent that competing voices feel alien and Orthodoxy feels emotionally, psychologically and intellectual normative. In such a case, we can hope that our children never have to assume the burden of needing to decide for themselves which Christian communion they can trust in the religious marketplace of ideas. Despite these steps we can take to diminish the effects of hyper-pluralism, many of the children of converts need to take the journey that we did; they will want to investigate the claims of Orthodoxy in much the same way as we did when we were exploring it from the outside. They may need to ask “Am I Orthodox simply because my parents are, or do I believe it for myself?” If that happens, it is hard to have sympathy for our children if we have romanticized the epistemological basis of our own conversion.

Private Judgment is Actually Good

We romanticize the epistemological basis of our conversion when we represent it as being an abandonment of private judgment instead of the ultimate act of private judgment. For example, in the testimonies of those who convert, I often read statements like this: “Orthodoxy was the default option once I realized I couldn’t trust my private judgment.” The problem here should be obvious: how does one reach the conclusion that Orthodoxy is the default option, if not by private judgment? Or again, I often come across people saying that “The problem with all my studying and investigation was that I was trying to figure it for myself as an individual; but then I realized that the Orthodox Church had already figured it out and so I didn’t need to.” Again, the problem should be obvious: how can we know that the Orthodox Church can be trusted to have figured it out unless one engages in some level of study and reflection accompanied by judgments about the content of those studies? Or again, I have heard people say “Since I can’t trust my own judgment about anything, my choice was between Orthodoxy and total skepticism; my ability to know anything was on the line.” But if non-Orthodox have zero rational basis for knowing anything, then on what basis were those of us who convert able, as non-Orthodox, to make thoughtful well-informed decisions to accept the claims of Orthodoxy? And if we were not able to do that, then how is embracing Orthodoxy anything other than an arbitrary act of blind faith that has no more warrant then embracing Mormonism?

These problems only arise when dealing with those who imagine that when they chose Orthodoxy they were not choosing Orthodoxy, or those who suppose that when they made a judgment in favor of the Orthodox church that they were not exercising private judgment (and remember I am defining “private judgment” as, basically, exercising reason to meet the epistemological conditions for a person’s knowledge claims, and not to the normativity of an individual’s judgment of matters ecclesiastical). Or these problems arise from convert, like the one Brad Littlejohn mentioned in his article ‘The Search For Authority and the Fear of Difference’, where we feel the burden of having to make up our own minds about religion and then imagine that making up our own mind that there is warrant for accepting the claims of the Orthodox church is somehow not another instance of making up our own mind about religion. Or similar problems arise when we present Orthodoxy as the alternative to either total relativism or total skepticism

Is Orthodoxy a Pre-condition For Knowledge?

This last problem (present Orthodoxy as the alternative to either total relativism or total skepticism) is more subtle, because the person presenting this erroneous line of reasoning doesn’t realize that, logically, it may be drawing into question the ability (or even the legitimacy) of a non-Orthodox person making judgments, so that here the attack against private judgment is one of implication rather than explication. Let me explain.

Within the community of American converts to Orthodoxy, particularly those who are heavily involved in defending Orthodoxy online, it is typical to assert that Protestantism leads to theological relativism (where this is a philosophical claim and not an historical claim) or that Orthodoxy is the alternative to total skepticism or that if Protestants were truly consistent then they would become relativists, postmodernists and maybe even atheists. For many of us, such statements get to an important psychological or biographical truth about our own lives, because we know that if we had remained Protestants, in all likelihood we would have descended in skepticism, cynicism, despair and epistemological subjectivism. However, there are many reasons to think that when these connections are taught as logical inferences (which they are throughout the Orthodox blogs and online forums in America that I have visited), that such connections are non sequiturs .Here why: it is possible to imagine that Jesus came and established a Church that had the latitude Protestants believe it has just as it is possible to imagine that Jesus came and established a Church with less latitude than Orthodox believe it has, and there is no reason to assume that the very idea of the former somehow implies relativism.

Prior to Saint Herman coming to the people of Alaska, were the native tribes justified in doubting their ability to know that polar bears are dangerous?

Prior to Saint Herman coming to the people of Alaska, were the native tribes justified in doubting their ability to know that polar bears are dangerous?

Prior to the establishment of the Orthodox church was relativism the only consistent option? Prior to Saint Herman coming to the people of Alaska, were the native tribes justified in doubting the multiplication table or in questioning their ability to know that polar bears are dangerous? Now it is true that Protestantism creates major problems in the realm of ecclesiology, but it is total over-reach to imagine that it logically entail relativism. Protestantism does relativize some things, but not all truth.

But let’s assume I am wrong. Let’s assume that the apologists who say “unless you become Orthodox then all knowledge is up for grabs” (and other more sophisticated formulations of the same) are correct. In that case, it follows that unless a person becomes Orthodox one cannot satisfy the preconditions of knowledge. But if a Protestant is unable to satisfy the conditions for knowledge, then it would be impossible for him to study the claims of the Orthodox church and make well-informed judgments on its veracity. In that case, while studying Orthodoxy may play an important role in creating the conditions of personal readiness to enter the church, the role that such study plays in objectively enabling a person come to knowledge about the claims of the Orthodox church, is negligible or non-existent. Indeed, if objective knowledge is off-limits to the Protestants, then in offering him resources to study the claims of Orthodoxy, we are essentially perpetuating the illusion that he can know something and arrive at knowledge in his current condition. Indeed, if objective knowledge is inaccessible until after a person believes in the claims of the Orthodox church (whether such belief takes place as a seeker or catechumen), then it follows that non-Orthodox cannot meet the epistemological conditions for knowledge claims. But this draws into question the Protestant’s ability to make judgments, including rational judgments when evaluating the claims of Orthodoxy.

Kicking Away the Ladder of Private Judgment

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I once drew a monk into conversation about this problem. He said that the convert who attacks private judgment is like the man who climbed a ladder and then kicked the ladder away once he reached at the top. The monk had a point: many of us exercise private judgment in coming to Orthodoxy, only to turn around and attack it.

There are practical liabilities for doing this. Kicking away the ladder of private judgment, and therefore denying that Orthodoxy is a choice, exists as a strange bedfellow with a type of rationalism that treats Orthodoxy as exceedingly obvious to any thinking person. This is because we can deny that we have exercised private judgment in choosing Orthodoxy only by fostering the illusion that Orthodoxy is the only option, an illusion fostered by the spurious epistemological paradigms mentioned earlier (i.e., that Orthodoxy is the precondition to all knowledge, etc). Thinking that Orthodoxy is the only option, we then imagine that the veracity of Her claims should be obvious to any thinking person. One who enters the Orthodox church on such grounds falls easy prey to the worst type of superiority and pride, helping to foster an atmosphere that more resembles Protestant fundamentalism than historical orthodoxy.

Why We Romanticize Our Journeys

There is a reason why we are tempted to romanticize our journey to Orthodoxy, as if the choice of Orthodoxy is qualitatively different than the process by which we all draw inferences and make judgments. You see, recognizing that I exercised private judgment in choosing Orthodoxy is to recognize that I trusted myself to discern the Holy Spirit’s leading; it is to acknowledge that I had enough intellectual confidence to study history and draw conclusions about the claims of the Orthodox church relative to the claims of the Roman Catholic church. But any belief or decision that is downstream of trusting oneself, any belief that is downstream of us exercising a degree of intellectual confidence, can seem tenuous to one who has been worn down by the hyper-pluralism of the contemporary moment and the skepticism that often seems to arise as its natural corollary. So we fear that recognizing these realities might diminish the level of confidence and certainty we can attach to our beliefs. So instead we opt for the fanciful illusion that our journey to Orthodoxy was the only alternative to total skepticism, that it was an act of epistemological necessity once we realized the terrible burden of private judgment. That type of Orthodoxy feels more secure, yet as I have found in dialogue with those who take this path, it is an illusory security that can easily come crashing down. Wanting a type of security that promises to lift us out of the turbulence of our pluralistic moment, we romanticize our journey as if our experience is somehow immune to the epistemological processes that go into all sound thinking; as such, we have the tendency to describe our journey in a way that is psychologically reassuring while being ontologically inaccurate.

Romanticizing our journey in this way comes at a heavy cost. The cost is felt in how we approach those coming into the church, or our children if they go through a period where they doubt or need to explore other options in order to make Orthodoxy their own. Those for whom Orthodoxy is rooted in a priori certitude are in danger of becoming to their children and to other seekers like someone who has quit smoking is to other smokers. Having imagined that Orthodoxy is axiomatically true as the necessary alternative to total skepticism, we think that a seeker who needs to study in depth and ask lots of questions only imagines that these processes are necessary for her, and maybe we will be patient for her sake even though we know that there is a preferable short-cut. Accordingly, the very idea of telling someone who wants to become Orthodox that they need to study longer (perhaps going through an entire liturgical cycle) seems strange. Having romanticized the epistemological basis of our own journey, we give new seekers the message that they have to stop thinking and just trust. As such, Orthodoxy comes to resemble a cult, and the quest for epistemological certainty actually turns into a functional fideism.

Often Protestant catechumens or converts to Orthodoxy have come under attack from their former evangelical friends, and in order to effectively interact with an onslaught of hostility it can be tempting to try to make air-tight cases for Orthodoxy in which the claims of the Church become not only rational, but inescapably self-evident and obvious to any thinking person. In the face of stronger opposition, the Protestant convert may feel the need to create stronger and stronger arguments, so in the end he is making bizarre statements that amount to Orthodox propaganda and can be easily falsified by a little logic or history. Such statements include bizarre claims like the following:

  • “If the claims of the Eastern Orthodox are false, then God doesn’t exist”
  • “Eastern Orthodoxy hasn’t changed in 2,000 years”
  • “The meaning of the Bible is completely inaccessible if the Orthodox church isn’t there to interpret scripture for us.”
  • “Throughout the first thousand years of Christianity, the church was united on doctrine.”
  • A denial of the teaching of the Orthodox Church logically necessitates total epistemological skepticism.

I confess that when I was new to Eastern Orthodoxy I also employed simplistic arguments that ignored the complexity of the issues at stake. What is difficult for me now is trying to keep quiet when I routinely hear this type of propaganda being presented to potential converts. Because our knee-jerk orientation is so often rationalistic, we feel compelled to reduce the truth of Orthodoxy to syllogistic type arguments as if the existential reasons for our journey are themselves insufficient. But there is nothing wrong with saying that we became Orthodox because it was there that we learned to pray, or it was through the Orthodox Church that we learned humility, or that only through the Church’s sacrament of confession did we find the accountability we needed for dealing with sin, or that the tangibility of Orthodox worship helped us to feel connected to God as whole people.

A De-Historicized Orthodoxy

Another cost of epistemological romanticism is that it creates a condition akin to what certain reformed friends of mine experienced when they embraced “presuppositional apologetics”. Epistemological romanticism does to Orthodoxy what presuppositional apologetics did for Christianity in so far as it removes its grounds of warrant from the realm of history and locates it instead a priori categories that then become the precondition to all knowledge. The fall-out goes beyond mere philosophical incoherence: once Orthodoxy is removed from the realm of history it is no longer truly Orthodoxy, but a dehistoricized shell of the same. But there is no short-cut to doing history; it is ultimately on history that Orthodoxy stands or falls, not epistemology.

Towards a Gentler Orthodoxy

Recognizing that the claims of Orthodoxy are rooted in the complexities and messiness of history, not the tidy categories of an a priori epistemology, should lead to a gentler Orthodoxy. We can be softer with our children if they begin questioning Orthodoxy, we can let seekers take whatever time they need before converting, without ever imagining that these processes reveal bondage to the error of “trying to work things out for yourself.” Above all, we can respect private judgment as friend rather than foe because we recognize that we also exercised private judgment when we chose to convert, and every day when we choose to remain in the Orthodox faith we are exercising private judgment.

Tolerance for Ambiguity

Another cost that comes with this epistemological romanticism is that it can lead to a low tolerance to ambiguity, a discomfort with the grey areas within Orthodoxy, and a fear of uncertainty concerning those areas where the teaching of the church raises more questions than if offers answers. The epistemological romanticism is a way of escaping from the ambiguities and confusions of the modern world by retreating into a mindset that promises to offer absolute clarity. But Orthodoxy is not a religion of absolute clarity. It is a religion of mystery, paradox and intellectual messiness. Similarly, our respective journeys into Orthodoxy are often messy, ambiguous and even illogical. This reality is in danger of being denied if we fall prey to the type of crude apologetics that presents Orthodoxy as the necessary alternative to total skepticism and the default position once we recognize that private judgment is suspect.

The Marketplace of Ideas Is Advantageous to Orthodoxy

Those who have been worn down by the Protestant “heretical imperative” may find it hard to acknowledge that the marketplace of ideas is inescapable. Yet I have suggested that without such an acknowledgement, we are in no position to understand the challenges that face us and our children. But we are also not in a position to appreciate the advantages afforded by the religious marketplace. Think about it: if it were not for the fact that America is a hyper-pluralistic religious marketplace, most of us converts would never have discovered Orthodoxy. If we were born in Puritan New England, where our religious tradition was received without us having any meaningful choice of options, would that be a good thing from an Orthodoxy perspective? Without pluralism, without the internet, without the religious smorgasbord that makes up American diversity, Eastern Orthodoxy would not be the fastest growing Christian group in America today. Similarly, if it were not for the fact Americans are used to making choices, that religious conversion from one place to another place is part of the modus operandi of what it means to be American, Orthodoxy would not occupy the place that it does in American life.

Creating Unnecessary Stumbling Blocks

Before closing, I would like to share one more drawback to the mentality that I have called ‘epistemological romanticism’ The drawback is that we create obstacles for those who aren’t Orthodox by practically inviting the reductio ad absurdum. I speak here from experience, because for years I avoided Orthodoxy in part because of this very inconsistency that seemed central to Orthodox apologetics. Every few years I would visit an Orthodox church and feel hungry to go deeper into it, only to have my enthusiasm dampened by well-meaning Orthodox enthusiasts who told me that I couldn’t trust my private judgment. “Well,” I thought, “if I can’t trust my private judgment then there is no point in me studying Orthodoxy further since, by its own criteria, I will never be able to reach judgments about its veracity.” This problem featured centrally in the anti-Orthodox polemics I engaged in at the time, as anyone can see by consulting the archives on my old blog. For example, in a post from 2008 I interacted with one Orthodox apologist by saying,

“You suggest that meeting the conditions necessary to know that the Orthodox Church is the true church does not historically refer to private judgment. Let me ask you a question: when you decided to leave Protestantism and join the Orthodox tradition, were you exercising your private judgment? When, after reading the church fathers, you realized that God wanted you to leave Anglo-Catholicism and join the Orthodox Church, were you exercising private judgment that your interpretation of the fathers was correct? When you realized that because we are all sinners we need an infallible interpreter, how do you know that you picked the right infallible interpreter? You may have had good reasons for choosing the Orthodox Church as the right infallible interpreter, but in the end you exercised private judgment in making an informed choice. If you didn’t, then why are we having this conversation?”

Similarly, in another post from 2008 I quoted Douglas Wilson as saying:

“As an epistemological question, private judgment is an inescapable concept. The only question is whether we will exercise it poorly or well, with knowledge or in ignorance. Roman Catholics exercise private judgment as much as the stoutest Protestant. But for various reasons, they just won’t admit what they are doing.”…

“As you are considering a return to Rome, I want to urge you to remember all the different ways in which private judgment will necessarily still be exercised by you. First, as you know, Rome requires you to “come home.” But, as your minister, I have required that you not go there, that you remain a faithful Protestant. Now, who makes the decision between these two competing authoritative voices? Who decides which voice is not genuinely authoritative? And incidentally, there are far more than just these two choices. Countless other groups beckon you as well. In all this, the ultimate decision will be made by you. This means that this is a dilemma that cannot be escaped. If I were to be asked by a Roman Catholic how I know my private interpretation is correct (over against the hubbub of all other private interpretations out there), I can reply with the same question. “Assume for a moment that we agree that we sinners all have need of an infallible interpreter. How do you know that you have picked the right infallible interpreter?”

It’s hard to avoid the fact that these critics do have a point. But they only have a point in response to the type of half-backed apologetics that have become fashionable within American Orthodoxy where we say “You can’t trust private judgment, so make a private judgment to become Orthodox, only don’t call it that…”

Again, if by “private judgment” we mean Protestant notions concerning the normativity of an individual’s judgment of matters ecclesiastical, then it is true that this type of private judgment is defective. It is tempting to imagine that this is all people mean when they attack private judgment. Yet on ground level, it has become increasingly clear to me that the attack against private judgment is much broader, functioning to short-circuit the epistemological conditions for knowledge while being symptomatic of the worst type of anti-intellectualism. In this sense, the question we need to ask is whether our private judgment is well-informed by church tradition, or whether it exists in a vacuum of my own subjectivity. That’s the issue at stake. It’s a matter of HOW I’m using private judgment not WHETHER I am.

Further Reading