After a good couple of months of reading Fr Andrew Stephen Damick’s text, Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems Through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, I finally finished it. The reading was informative but a bit dense. This is not because the information was incredibly difficult to sort through, but because Damick tends to spend a lot of time repeating himself, which can get a little boring. This is not necessarily a problem with the text, nor is it a critique of his writing; it is simply to say that the nature of this work is one that actually seems to call for a fair amount of repetition. That said, for the Orthodox Christian (youth worker or non) who wishes to know more about other religious traditions, I recommend this text with some reservation. My reservation, however, is primarily due to how zealous Orthodox readers might perceive Fr Andrew’s text. For now, I turn to the strengths and my reasons for this book’s recommendation.
I cannot count the times I have heard Orthodox Christian young people (and older folks) state that they wish they knew more about other religious traditions and how their Orthodoxy differs. Damick provides a very good, albeit elementary response to this need.
Bravely, Damick looks to explore the major tenets of several world religions, including, but not limited to: Roman Catholicism, Islam, Hindusim, Mormonism, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. His work also contains a brief exposition on the movements of Christian thinkers throughout the periods of history known as the Magisterial and Radical Reformations. Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, as its full title states, is a good work in that it provides a view of these movements of religion through the framework of Orthodox Christianity while not launching a polemic against other faiths. As Damick puts it:
The purpose of this book is not to “prove” that Orthodox Christianity is the one, true faith…What we are seeking to do, however, proceeding from the position of the Orthodox Christian faith, is to show that the differences between Orthodoxy and other faiths are real and that they are important. (p. 8 )
His work provides a self-admittedly biased look at other faiths, but even in its bias, it is not unfair. Indeed, one of the great strengths of Damick’s thinking is that he repeatedly states that only those who practice these other religions can speak adequately to the ins-and-outs of their traditions; “it is impossible to say that you truly know a religion unless you have lived it and lived it well” (p. 185).
Damick’s work is greatly respectful and tactful in its approach to viewing other faith traditions. His introduction, in fact, sets the stage for this approach quite excellently. Rather than setting up his book as a treatise on the greatness of Orthodoxy and why other people should get with the program and convert, Damick states, “the great spiritual battle of our time is not a struggle between believers and atheists [or non-Orthodox, for that matter]. Rather, it is a struggle between pride and humility” (p. 6). From the get-go, Damick is suggesting another way of viewing our faith: doctrines are pointless if they don’t lead to transformation. This is not to say that doctrines do not matter; it is merely to say that doctrines are, by their very nature, formative, and confessing them must yield within the believer true transformation of the heart.
Though transformation is an essential ingredient to doctrinal confession, Damick does not indicate nor imply that all doctrines are created equal as long as they bear certain fruits within their believers. Fr Andrew continually states that Orthodox Christian doctrine is the fullness of God’s revelation to humankind, and it is therefore the most wholly transformative and beneficial to all who seek newness of life. For Damick, doctrine matters.
The matter of doctrine, Damick asserts, is that it represents and forms the very basis of all religions, no matter the creed. He further writes:
…for most traditional religions, faith is not merely a set of ‘views.’ Rather, religious faith is a whole way of life, a purposeful way of living that has at its heart a certain set of goals that inform everything in that way of life. (p. 8 )
Doctrine, then, is not simply a credal statement regarding tenets of faith, but rather, it is the very underpinnings and fabric of life itself. Everything that any religion confesses is geared toward leading its faithful in a certain way of life. This should seem like a no-brainer, but in my experience, more often than not, discussions about doctrine usually turn into a matter of who is right and who is wrong rather than what is right and what is wrong. To quote Damick again, “Religion, therefore, is not merely something you think; it’s something you do, something that actively engages you” (p. 9).
The Truth leads us to live a certain kind of life, and for Damick, this way of seeing religion is essential, and it is also another strength of his work. In all faiths he explores, he looks for what St. Justin Martyr called the “spermatikos logos, that is, the Logos in seed form” (Damick, p. 16). For Damick, the Truth of Christ is not something to which Orthodox have exclusive claim, but rather, the Truth of Christ (the spermatikos logos) can be found in all corners and recesses of the earth, even in non-Christian faiths. Damick, however, suggests that the fullness of God’s Truth about his Son, the Logos, is found only in the Orthodox Christian faith. By this token, Damick states, all other faiths are necessarily “incomplete” (p. 16).
In this light, Damick, throughout his work, compares and contrasts the belief systems of these religions, looking in them for any common ground that a given faith has with Orthodoxy. He does this well enough, but I’ll save further comments for the weaknesses portion of the review.
While Damick believes that we can and should affirm the fullness of Orthodox Truth and speak against the danger of heterodox (unorthodox) doctrines, he also states that we must not speak as to how specific individuals we meet are affected by these dangerous doctrines. This means that as the Orthodox Christian believer encounters non-Orthodox people, he must be very careful not to heap judgment or condemnation upon the non-Orthodox; “we do not know [how their belief affects them], because none of us can look into another’s heart” (p. 17). By refraining from launching an all-out polemic against another human being and the things they hold onto most dearly, we will show that we have internalized the Orthodox faith, and we will be engaging in the battle that Damick sets forth initially: the battle against pride.
Damick reminds his readers that Orthodox Christians do not hold the Truth by any merit of their own intellection, but rather, the Orthodox Faith is True in itself since in it is the fullness of God’s revelation to humanity. We have the Faith because God has given it to us. Remembering this reality, Orthodox Christians will not be able to help but treat non-Orthodox with the same respect that Damick does in his work.
A couple more strengths deserve brief mentioning. In the beginning of the book, Damick briefly outlines some of the basic points of Orthodox Christian doctrine, and he also names and defines some of the early heresies against which the early Church spoke. This is especially useful as he looks at modern religions, many of which are simply re-births of these ancient heresies. He also includes, as appendices, references for further reading on several of the religions he examines. This is good since, as you’ll read below, his work does not sufficiently explore most (if not all) of the faiths.
With all this said, however, it still stands to discuss the weaknesses of Damick’s text.
While the heart of Damick’s work is fantastic, generous, and truly beneficial to the reader, some aspects need to be pointed out.
The first, and greatest, weakness of the text is that it is simply too short. In a matter of 192 pages, Damick hopes to discuss and view through Orthodox eyes the following faith traditions and belief positions: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Calvinism, Zwinglianism, Arminianism, Presbyterianism, Dutch Reformed, Anglicanism, Episcopalianism, Methodism, Weslyeanism, Pietism, Antimonianism, Anabaptism, Mennonitism, Amishism, Hutteritism, Puritanism, Separatism, Quakerism, Shakerism, Individualism, Neo-gnosticisim, Dualism, Escapeism, Dispensationalism, Restorationism, Charismaticism, Pentecostalism, Covenant Theology, Fundamentalism, Unitarian Universalism, Swedenborgianism, Mormonism, Christadelphianism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the “Moonies,” Judaism, Islam, Druze, Zoroastrianism, Mandaeism, Yazidism, Baha’i, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Neo-paganism, Wicca, and Scientology (not to mention his appendix on atheism and agnositicism)… I don’t care who you are, discussing that many faiths in less than 200 pages is either an admirable quest or a fool’s errand, and I don’t know that it is the former.
Damick is aware of this weakness in his work and admits it freely, but in my opinion, that does not free him simply to proceed. Like I said in the strengths section, he does a good job of exploring the major tenets of some of these faiths, and he does treat each fairly within the work (and he does provide a list of references (although, I’m not sure wikipedia is an authority on Mormonism)), but the scope of his text is simply too large to fit into the less-than-200 pages in which he aims to provide an exploration of these faiths “through the lens of the Ancient Christian Faith.” Buddhism, for example, is given approximately a page of focus. For a religion (or philosophy) that draws some 350 million people, this seems to be less than is due.
But before you, reader, think that I disparage Damick’s work for this reason, understand that I sincerely believe that Damick (even in his page on Buddhism) treats these faiths with the respect that is due to them, even if he does not give them appropriate attention. Moreover, he all but demands respect for them:
To suggest that all these believers are really on the same path [to God] is to do damage to their theological systems – to assert that somehow we know better than these people do what their teachings really are. Yet it is a fundamental rule of any religious study that one should let the believers speak for themselves as to what they believe and, most especially, what they are trying to achieve in their religion. (p.157)
Rather than stating what other faiths believe, Damick states that believers ought to look for Jesus Christ, who is the Truth, in other religions. This keeps a perspective of humility, understanding that only Jesus is the Truth, not “what I believe.” So for that, I applaud Fr Damick; I merely suggest that his work is too short, although, I admit I’m not sure how long it would need to be in order to give each faith the attention it deserves.
Another weakness (though not terribly weak) is the sections in some chapters titled “Common Ground.” Most of Damick’s “Common Ground” sections tend to focus more on an overview of how Orthodoxy and the religious system at hand differ rather than how they align. In his chapter on the Magisterial Reformation, for example, of the two pages allotted to finding common ground, three sentences state what these Protestant Reformers and Orthodox share. To be fair, however, most of Damick’s text does look at Orthodoxy and any given faith side-by-side. In this case, “common ground” is found throughout the course of the text; his sections that are specifically for this purpose, however, fall short of summing up the common ground.
These weaknesses, I believe, pave the way for the cautionary note that I would like to give Damick’s potential readers.
A Cautionary Note
Damick’s book is truly a great read for the Orthodox Christian who is looking to supplement their own faith with a marginal understanding of other faiths. The Orthodox Christian who comes to this work and looks to be informed about their Orthodox Faith in new ways will not be disappointed.
But Damick’s work, in some ways, almost looks like it promises to supply Orthodox readers with a lot of good information about why Orthodoxy is right. Readers who approach the text with this mindset might think they are gathering “ammo” they can use when they get into that next argument with their Baptist grandmother who does not understand their conversion; they might think, “Great, now I’ll know how to give that Jehovah’s Witness the old Orthodox ‘One-two!’ I’ll be a modern St. Nicholas. He slapped Arius; I’ll slap Arians;” they might believe they need to inform their Mormon friends that Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon by reading it out of a top-hat, which, of course, proves how preposterous it is. These are, simply put, bad reasons to read this book, and it is, in no way, what Damick intended by writing it. He did not mean to supply people with artillery to wage war against unbelievers; he wrote this book for the opposite reason.
If you are thinking of picking up this book in order to get into the dirty laundry of major world religions, think again. Damick does not do this himself, nor will he empower you to do so. If you are, however, looking to pick up this book so that you can learn how to thoughtfully engage your Muslim neighbor, Buddhist father-in-law, or Catholic parents in a way that honors their belief and supplies you with enough basic knowledge to let these human persons who bear the image of Christ speak for themselves, then you have come to the right book, and for you, I recommend this book highly.
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