Existence, Choice and God

I recall a conversation with a Russian parishioner some years back. She had been baptized as an adult (by me) and I referred to her as a “convert” in the course of conversation. She bristled slightly at my comment and said, “I am not a convert. Converts are people who choose.” She went on to explain that although she had never been baptized, she was, nonetheless Orthodox, and would not have considered any other option.

I understood her point – converts are indeed people who choose. And it is also true that there are many people whose religious life has not involved a choice, other than to be what they have always been.

In America, we live in an age of conversion – at least we live in an age of converts and particularly an age of choices. Such choices can be embarrassingly numerous when fully recounted. Many “converts” (regardless of their present loyalties) have fairly convoluted stories that include multiple church memberships or worse. Our culture does not include a lot of straight lines.

I think choices occur on many levels – though two particular levels seem to me to stand in strong contrast. We sometimes make choices on a rational level: we consider matters, weigh them, subject them to logic and a number of other processes and we choose. We make the best decision, or approximate a best decision – and can likely give impressive reasons for our actions.

The other level, I would label existential. Such decisions are often messy, or full of hesitation and hardship. Some months after my family’s reception into the Orthodox faith, I asked my wife, “Do ever just feel crazy” (referring to the life that followed our conversion). Her reply was deeply existential: “If you were floating in the North Atlantic with your family in a lifeboat, you’d probably feel ‘crazy’ – but if you looked over and saw the Titanic going down, you’d feel truly grateful, crazy or not.”

If our questions and pilgrimage are ultimately about God, and not simply about preferences, then our journey will likely be marked by such existential choices rather than purely rational ones. Abraham’s journey towards Canaan cannot truly be described as “rational” (nor can the “sacrifice of Isaac”). St. Antony’s response to the Gospel reading in which Christ tells a man to sell all that he has and “come and follow me,” cannot be described as rational. St. Antony heard the passage read and heard it as applying to himself (not to everyone – but to himself). Giving away all that he had and entering the desert is the act of someone who is driven by their desire for God. When such is the case, “choice” is probably not the right word. “Obey” is more accurate. St. Antony’s “conversion” is the choice to obey.

On this level, everyone should want to be a convert – to be so drawn toward God that our response is obedience rather than merely rational choice. I think I would modify the definitions of my Russian parishioner. Converts are not people who choose – Converts are people who obey. Consumers are people who choose.

It is here that the shape of our culture effects so many. With thousands of Christian denominations, and certainly hundreds of local choices for many urban and suburban areas, religious consumerism can become a very common mode of existence. When I was a Protestant I have met new families visiting the Church I was pastoring say, “We’re Church shopping,” without any sense whatsoever of embarrassment. It is what many people do.

I have to say that as an Orthodox priest I find very few “Church shoppers” at any given service. Becoming Orthodox is a difficult and complicated decision for most people who were not born to it. For that reason, I tend to encounter more people who stand at an existential point in their lives. To become Orthodox, they must want God and believe that He can be found here.

Such existential moments are not the exclusive property of Orthodox Christians (or their converts). Life is generally dangerous enough to offer us many such critical points. It is also true that such points need to be respected by those who see them. I can offer to help someone who is in such a place – but I dare not judge the place they are in – or even the choice that may come of it. Not all choices are equally healthy or true – but I dare not seek to transform someone’s existential crisis into just one more consumerist decision.

May God have mercy on us – converts are not people who shop.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





28 responses to “Existence, Choice and God”

  1. David Dickens Avatar

    Well said Father. I would add that neither should we concern ourselves with the autogenetation of such an existential crisis. That was what I was taught in my youth was “evangelism”, though truly it is simple abuse .. no less than physically beating someone to a pulp.

  2. dad0seven Avatar

    Existential is a good descriptor for the point in time my family and I are at. Certainly “crossroads” is a pale understatement. More like a point of departure from one plane of “existence” to another.

    Glory to God that my family has been led to this point at a moment in our lives where many of us, young and old, have run out of options, into barriers, or are just plain exhausted. Please pray for us.

  3. fatherstephen Avatar

    David, it’s a very good point. I recall that throughout a period of seven years in which I was actively inquiring and moving towards conversion to Orthodoxy, the priest (now my Godfather) never once pressured me or tried to convince me of anything. Instead he was a very patient friend who prayed for me and my family, answered questions to the best of his ability and received us with joy when the time came. He later told me that conversion is “God’s business.” His ministry was “to practice hospitality.”

    I would observe that he acted like a man who truly believed in God and believed God could be trusted. Ideological religion necessarily has a nervousness about it, and is easily open to abuse. And, of course, such an “ideological” approach can be found anywhere and everywhere.

  4. Barbara Avatar

    I have also struggled with the word “conversion” and have been criticized for my use of it in describing my journey into orthodoxy. Sometimes it is viewed as a rejection of all past beliefs and therefore an offense to all who are not interested in orthodoxy but still view themselves as Christian. However, I recently read a description of conversion as a return to ‘what was from the beginning.’ No matter how we come to orthodoxy I think all of us recognize that it is a reorientation to paradise…an easting of ourselves towards our salvation eschatology…to when we were most who we were intended to be…to when we were in perfect communion with God…towards the possibility of perfect communion through Christ. It is a return and an explosion of all of the light available to us in other forms of Christianity. The deeper your conversion, the more you are overwhelmed with gratitude.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Wonderfully well put! Speaking to a group who were exploring Orthodoxy several years back, I described myself as “Cradle Orthodox.” When they picked their jaws back up, I explained: “According to the teaching of the Church, Christ is fully God and fully man – indeed the only fully Man. He is the image to which we are to be conformed. Thus, we are all “cradle Orthodox,” i.e. born to become what we were created to be. So, I continued, I was born Orthodox, I only lived in schism from myself for 45 years.”

    Something like that, so much more correctly described in your comment, is quite the case. Orthodoxy is not something to be compared to other things – it is the state of “right glory.” Still on the journey…

  6. zeitungzeid Avatar

    An easting of ourselves..
    An explosion of all of the light available..
    (cf. 2 Peter 1:19: “… until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts”…)

    I used to think that all these exhortations were deliberately vague and nebulous but they are very specific and instructional.

    Very well said Barbara.

  7. Fr. Jonathan Avatar

    It seems to me that there is a restlessness that often accompanies the modern conversion experience. Many of us are searching for the right church, or the best church, or the One True Church, or the truly pure church, or what have you, and in some ways I think it’s easy to get caught up in the searching and never really be able to rest. We struggle with the resting, because the searching is exciting. The resting is not. The planting of roots is hard and tedious and doesn’t yield the kind of fast, flashy rewards that we have grown used to receiving from consumer culture. Yet it’s only when we’re rooted that we grow, and we can only be rooted when God is allowed to be the one who roots us. The whole thing doesn’t work when we try to plant ourselves, using God as some kind of fancy trowel. Part of true conversion is letting go of the need to search and allowing obedience to replace the quest to be right.

  8. James the Thickheaded Avatar
    James the Thickheaded

    Obedience in part at least is right. I think it was Fr. Meletios Webber’s line that expresses the sense quite well: “Not a rational choice so much as God gathering His people.”

    And ultimately, it is a relief to be so overwhelmed that your mind is not a part of the choice, but it’s not left out so much as relegated to a secondary place of confirmation and assent. It was the sense of reverence, the piety, the fullness of worship, and the obvious intense spiritual insight of the Father’s whose depth of piercing wisdom was mirrored in an economy of language reached with almost as much care and intensity in expression as the insight itself..

    The draw may not be immediate. At first, it may be no more than curiosity or wonder… as in why this or why that… but it is a curiosity all the same that seems to acknowledge that the answer or the rightness (without need of justification) will become evident… if only you can stay near for a while. All of which is to say, conversion to Orthodoxy is like falling in love with your spouse, and he or she with you: It happens in different ways and at different speeds. But it cannot be one sided either… it is an incarnate experience, interactive and iterative as well. It’s meant to be for life… as there is and can be no other. Similarly it doesn’t take away from the others… they’re all well and fine as far as they go. It’s just that the comparison is as unfair as reflected in response to the Queen’s dismay at the lead the original yacht “America” held in the final stretch: “I’m afraid, Your Majesty… there is no second.”

  9. elizabethmahlou Avatar

    As one who is a convert (to Catholicism from atheism), I appreciate the definition. Obedience has clearly been the operant word for me. I also found Barbara’s description beautiful. I am afraid I have nothing original to add to the discussion, but I very much enjoyed this post, as I do so many other posts of yours.

  10. Romanós Avatar

    Everything very well said. I am one who, once I gave my life to Christ intentionally, wanted to belong to the ancient Church, and found Orthodoxy, and have never, could never, leave it for anything. I always wanted the security with God that Orthodoxy delivers. When I found it, the identification was instantaneous, and appearing irrational. I just followed Jesus through the door, and there I was—with Him.

    The two best lines in your post:
    “Converts are not people who choose – Converts are people who obey. Consumers are people who choose.”
    “To become Orthodox, they must want God and believe that He can be found here.”

    The second quote is the reason why I witness for Jesus Christ, and not for the Church, and why it disturbs me how some Orthodox people treat Christ as if He were somehow part of Orthodoxy, ‘Join the Orthodox Church, and by the way, you can have Christ too.’

    I witness for Jesus Christ, and He witnesses for the Church.
    Yes, you cannot have one without the Other, either way.
    Converts are people who obey.

  11. Sabrina Messenger Avatar

    I can relate to this article somewhat. Mind you, I don’t get upset about the word ‘convert.’ for that is what I am. Facts are facts. I wasn’t born into an Eastern Orthodox family, nor was I raised in the Orthodox faith. I’ve known of the religion all my life as being described as “close to the Roman Catholic” but even when I did “shop” throughout Protestantism, I never consider Orthodoxy even as a viable option for converting to because I figured you had to be either Greek or Russian in order to be so. I saw it as the same as being Jewish. Either you are or you aren’t. Anyway, it was a number of years later when I realized that God was indeed leading me away from Romanism to the Orthodox Christian path, so then I wasted no time in going down it. Hence the reason I named my blog “Choosing to Look East.” So now I’ve been “officially” Orthodox for nearly 2 months, but I can look back and see where I’ve been Orthodox in my heart my entire life without even realizing it. In a sense, it’s like Orthodoxy chose me, vs the other way around. If there was a choice on my part, it was really choosing to obey the voice of God in this matter. Thing is: there are folks who don’t get why I chose to become Orthodox…and they say pithy things like ‘as long as it makes you happy.’ It’s not a question of my happiness or unhappiness, it’s because it’s where God wants me to be. Wish I could make folks understand that, but oh well…

  12. Sabrina Messenger Avatar

    One more thought, if I may. As for the term “convert” being negative, I disagree. After all, was not the Apostle Paul a convert? and let’s face it, St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was definitely an amazing, miraculous one, one that still makes a difference, even to the present day!

  13. Jeremiah Avatar

    Thank you for this Father. This explains my being drawn to the Orthodox Church in a way I should be able to articulate better than I do. I have been accused of journeying toward the Orthodox Church as a “consumer”, looking for something to “fill a need”, or because I have just become “bored”. Your post really answers why I have described my journey as “I don’t WANT to become Orthodox (though I do), I MUST become Orthodox. I am not following “doctrine, I am following Christ in His Church.”
    It’s the same accusation of consumerism that makes my wife upset when I tell her my young daughters (10 and 6) want to become Orthodox with me. My flip-flopping as a Protestant gives fuel to the accusation, but the call to the Church is unmistakeable.
    Thank you again. Please keep my family and journey in your prayers.

  14. Visibilium Avatar

    Despite my occasional criticism of both converts and consumers, I don’t have a problem with either conversion or consumerism. Both involve choices, but the nature of the choices differentiates them. Consumerism involves choosing means to achieve ends in an ephemeral and utilitarian fashion. This kind of choosing is absolutely necessary to living well in this world. That conversion involves making choices that may fly in the face of utilitarian good sense, e.g., in the case of St. Paul, is probably beyond dispute.

    A consumer’s guide to religion: (1) Where are the neighbors going? (2) Where are my social betters going? (3) Where can I go to effortlessly hedge the risk of hellfire?

    A cradle’s guide to religion: Where does Mom make me go?

  15. Joel Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, thank you for clarifying my lack of words with regards to my inquiry into Orthodoxy. People have accused me of having read to much or looking for the perfect system. I remind them that I am doing the exact opposite–admitting that I know little and that my sin (and the Church’s imperfection) is great. You put it better.

  16. Victor Avatar

    Thank you Fr.

    I quite liked this and the helpful commentary from all. In my own case I have oftren said that before becoming Orthodox I felt like I was ‘dating’, unable to really commit. When I encounterd the Church, I felt much the same as I do about marriage, “This is it. This is for life. Welcome Home.”


  17. Truth Unites... and Divides Avatar
    Truth Unites… and Divides

    It is here that the shape of our culture effects so many.

    Should it be “effects” or “affects”?

    Fr. Jonathan: “Part of true conversion is letting go of the need to search and allowing obedience to replace the quest to be right.”

    A small tug within that this has the making of a false dichotomy, although highly likely that it’s unintentional.

    Framed starkly: “Obedience vs. Quest to be right. Either Obedience or Quest to be right.”

    Being on a Quest or Seeking to know what is right and Who is right is a fine activity. And once you know Who is right, surrendering to obedience is the wise thing to do.

    And the One who is Right honors this quest.

  18. Fr. Jonathan Avatar

    Following Christ, who is right and good and true, or even following His Church, which is right and good and true because it is His, is not the same thing as being the best person in the room when surrounded by unbelievers. I certainly didn’t mean to set up a dichotomy between having correct teaching and being obedient, since those two obviously go together. Nevertheless, I think there is a strong temptation for Christians to think of ourselves as right rather than thinking of Christ as true. The face of the matter is, there are many unbelievers I’ve met who are better people than me. Fortunately, it’s not my righteousness that saves me, but His.

  19. Truth Unites... and Divides Avatar
    Truth Unites… and Divides

    “I certainly didn’t mean to set up a dichotomy between having correct teaching and being obedient, since those two obviously go together.”

    That’s good.

    “Nevertheless, I think there is a strong temptation for Christians to think of ourselves as right rather than thinking of Christ as true.”

    Curious. Have you yielded to this strong temptation?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar

    Actually, the desire or search to be “right” is generally associated with the passions and the life of the ego, rather than the life of the heart. Truth, is a different matter. It is more than possible to hold to what is “right” and yet not know the truth. The hallmarks are when discussions about what is right lead us into arguments, make us angry, or make us judge others, etc (these are actions associated with the passions and the ego). For many Christians who are interested in doctrinal matters, the issues do not go past their egos – because unless combined with a well-directed asceticism and humility, being “right” is only one more way to destroy the soul.

  21. Truth Unites... and Divides Avatar
    Truth Unites… and Divides

    “The hallmarks are when discussions about what is right lead us into arguments, make us angry, or make us judge others, etc (these are actions associated with the passions and the ego). “

    Have you ever witnessed members of the Eastern Orthodox Church exhibiting these hallmarks?

  22. Marc Avatar

    Dear Father Stephen,

    I am a convert to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism.Reading your post made me think of a book I am presently reading: Hesychia and theology by Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos. Through the reading of this book, I have come up with a few important questions:

    – When we are being received in the Orthodox Church, why are we not baptized but go directly to the Christmation? In other words, why are we recognizing a sacrement that has been performed in an “Unorthodox Church” as valid?

    – If we as Orthodox consider ourselves as the True Body of Christ, what are the Roman Catholics? Are they also part of the Body of Christ?

    Finally, as a comment, whenever I tend to fret on questions like this, I try to remember the thief on the cross who was saved and received in the Kingdom of God by Jesus, and this without having been officially baptized, Chrismated and having partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ….



  23. fatherstephen Avatar

    From the most general Orthodoxy understanding, these things are not exactly to be understood as valid or invalid. Rather the canons of the early Church on the reception of Converts, allows for a variety of means of reception, depending on the circumstance and from what background they come.

    Technically, all are being received from a schismatic background, if not from a heretical background. The Church in the early centuries made it possible to recent different groups in different manners – all of this is a matter of what is called “economy” meaning, something that is “allowed” for the sake of salvation.

    Today, only one or two groups within the Orthodox would require all converts to be re-baptized. Moscow and Constantinople, for instance, do not require Baptism of all converts.

    What is of importance, is that the Church in her mercy receives us according to the economy of the Holy Spirit, for which we should be grateful. I think those who argue about these things from a semi-mechanical view of the sacraments perhaps mislead themselves or fail to comprehend the use of economy. But even those who choose not to use the economy that is given us, still do not err.

  24. Henry Avatar

    A very excellent thought provoking article. One question. Your “existential necessity” seem about ½ a step shy of irresistible grace. Is that intentional or am I seeing things that are not there because I am wearing Protestant reading glasses?

  25. Marc Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen for your enlightening answer to my question. In Christ,


  26. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t think of it as irresistible – because people do seem to resist it. I’ve seen too many lives go down into darkness to say it is irresistible. I will leave it in the merciful hands of God what happens within that place of darkness. But the awareness of the existential crisis or predicament upon which we stand – seems to me essential in our coming to know God.

  27. […] was recently reading a blog post titled: Existence, Choice And God by Father Stephen Freeman, on his Glory To God For All Things blog site. He speaks of the role of […]

  28. Dan Avatar

    I did my own sort of take on your post at my own blog here: http://www.civitatedei.com/2011/06/converts-are-not-people-who-shop/

    To put it briefly, I think the problem is that consumerism, or merely shopping, is the dominant mode of interaction in North America today. We too often think about politics, relationships, and yes even religion in this manner.

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