The Need to Know

bapThere is a deep nagging sense in our culture of the “need to know.” We want to know government secrets, intimate details of private lives, pretty much everything. I think this felt need is often present because we lack trust in those who are keeping secrets. We want to know what they’re up to. The secrets of other lives, however, are interesting to us, primarily out of envy and a strange curiosity. But there is another strong sense of the “need to know” that is religious in nature. It is an artifact of our Protestant heritage. The Reformation created an ethic of suspicion. All religious claims were subjected to careful critiques and the demand for an authoritative source. Confidence required a text.

This becomes a problem for many converts to the Orthodox faith and for many Orthodox who have grown up in a culture that was shaped in a Protestant milieu. Much of the Orthodox life has no Scriptural “proof.” Make no mistake, Orthodoxy is suffused with Scripture, but it is also filled with things for which Protestants will draw a blank. The details in the life of the Virgin Mary, most of which are marked by various feast days, have very little Scriptural reference. They often have Biblical “types” in the Old Testament (passages that are interpreted as pointing to them), but typology is beyond the pale of Protestant sensibility. What is a poor convert (like me) to do?

For one, you begin by examining the assumptions behind the “need to know.” There is a democratization of authority within Protestant thought. Each person seeks to verify for himself what will be believed or accepted. With this comes a breakdown of authority and a shattering of spiritual relationships. The community inherently undergoes a fragmentation. What you yourself accept may not satisfy your neighbor. The ethic of suspicion infiltrates everything. As a result, contemporary Christianity is stripped bare of many traditional elements. Rock ‘n Roll in Church seems normal, while incense demands Scriptural proof.

But the entire democratization of knowledge is a false consciousness. There are any number of activities that all people engage in that involve a tradition, most often not recognized by the participants. The simple act of attending a movie in a theater involves actions and decisions that we know through our participation in a cultural tradition. We understand how to line up for tickets and wait our turn (something that is not as obvious as one might think). We understand making our way into the theater and how to find a seat. Those who ignore the social rules that are commonly practiced are seen as disruptive. No one is sorry to see them removed. And only the most alien stranger would need to ask for directions or help.

Such a mundane thing may seem obvious to us – but it is nothing of the sort. I recall a Romanian friend who told me of his first visit to an American Protestant Church. He had never been to anything other than an Orthodox Church. He said (with amazement), “Their narthex looked like the foyer of a hotel!” He understood, to a small degree that he was to follow others making their way into the “sanctuary,” and managed to find a seat. But he was greatly disturbed. He saw no altar, no icons, nothing that indicated for him that he was in a Church. He had something of the same experience for the entire Sunday. “Why do they do that?” he asked.

The same question is asked, of course, by a Protestant after his first visit to an Orthodox Church – only the customs are far more complex and perplexing.

My point is that we do many things without “thinking” or having a “reason.” In an Orthodox Church, you’ll see parents helping a child learn to kiss the icons and to light a candle (children love lighting candles in Church!). Within their pre-school years they will have learned how to attend an Orthodox service and they will never forget. Of course, when a Protestant friend asks, “Why do you do that?” they may have no answer. And though this may seem sad from the standpoint of an outsider, it is no different than a Protestant not knowing why he sits when someone prays (the Orthodox would never do this).

Many things that arouse questions are simply explained as a matter of origin. Why do the Orthodox kiss icons? Because Orthodox Christian practices evolved in the Mediterranean. And those practices were exported and became a hallmark of Christian cultures across the world.

The point is that life is not lived “by the book.” There is no proof-text for breathing. And the bulk of the Christian life is and should be as natural as breathing. But there are texts that matter and doctrines that are believed. If those doctrines are to be lived, however, then they must move from the realm of idea and proof-text to living expression. And this is the true explanation for “why the Orthodox do what they do.”

Celebrating events in the life of the Virgin Mary is what belief in Christ’s Incarnation looks like. It is not the only thing that expresses such a belief. But if such a belief is real and true and accepted in the fullness of its meaning, then venerating the woman by and through whom that most singular of all events occurred, is perfectly natural. What is not natural is the willful disrespect (and lack of respect) of the Mother of God that marks most of contemporary Christianity. It is difficult to see anything in contemporary Christian expression that indicates belief in the Incarnation. An anthropologist might suggest that contemporary Christianity believes in the primacy of entertainment.

Human culture is not chaos. Despite everything, it tends towards order. We want to know what to do and how to behave. And though we are not creatures of habit, the most common activities are done repeatedly and in a repetitive manner. We do not want to think about how to sit in a chair every time the occasion arises.

Orthodoxy is a complex practice of very normal, human actions. Kissing, bowing, lighting candles, making the sign of the Cross are not exotic. What seems strange is the assembly of persons as an audience and engaging in no discernible actions that seem remotely religious. Doubtless, religious thoughts are occurring, jumbled together with all of the other thoughts that mark human consciousness. But the same behaviors could be seen at a sporting event or a movie. The anthropologist might be right.

The obvious question to ask is, “What difference does all this make?” The answer is simple. Cultures and civilizations are constructed from the artifacts of human behavior. They are not natural events that occur on their own. To travel through Western Europe is to travel through the remains of a civilization now passed. It’s Cathedrals, place names, calendar details, and foods can still be found, though most people will have no idea of their origin.

To travel through the United States is largely to wonder if Christianity ever had a place here. Church buildings remain, though many cannot be clearly identified as such. The collapse of Christendom and the rise of secularism has caused hardly a ripple on the practices of the average American citizen. We live as though there were no God.

We have inherited a deep need to know. But in terms of religion, there is very little left to be known. Secularism is a Christian invention. It is surprising that some are just now noticing that they don’t like it.



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.



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30 responses to “The Need to Know”

  1. Robert Avatar

    “An anthropologist might suggest that contemporary Christianity believes in the primacy of entertainment.”

    Ouch! But sadly true.

  2. Mike B Avatar
    Mike B

    Fr Stephen

    Your recent posts on repenting for the sins of the world, the tyranny of history, the kingdom parable, and now this on the importance of tradition to culture are all running together and intertwining in my mind…I imagine this is your intent.

    There is this prayer excerpt from the Ancient Faith Prayer Book (Papavassiliou, ed). It comes from Prayers by the Lake by St Nikolai Velimirovic and is at the end of a long list of things of the world for which he is repenting:

    “For all the history of mankind from Adam to me, a sinner, I repent; for all history is in my blood. For I am in Adam and Adam is in me.”

    I have an MA in Christian Apologetics from an evangelical school, and while I really enjoy the life of the mind God has graciously begun to open my heart. I came to Orthodoxy weary of proof-texts and philosophical arguments and statements like this:

    “…we should not allow personal experience, religious tradition, or community consensus to stand above the Spirit-inspired Word of God” from Duval and Hays’ book, Grasping God’s Word, in which I find no mention of the role of the Church in grasping God’s word.

    I don’t think I have a specific comment other than to say I am thankful for the ancient path (eternal pathways; Jer 6:16) onto which God has brought me and to which He continually brings me back when I wander away.

    Forgive my meandering thoughts…your posts are swirling around in me.

  3. Byron Avatar

    The ugliness of secularism is never part of the presentation. Like most things, it begins small (“we *need* to have this discussion”), refusing to accept any view other than its own and only comes into itself after accepted by the wider culture. I think we are just starting to see how ugly, intrusive and intolerant it will become.

    I often look around our chapel and am fascinated by the need for everything in it; by how everything contributes to bringing us closer to God in worship. I am very thankful for that; I definitely need the focus and presence the Church provides.

    Thank you for this word, Father!

  4. Dean Avatar

    Entertainment mode is in full force in our area. One Church has two vinyl signs. The front one reads…Consider us your happy hour 10 to 11. The other on the side is a play on the sign seen in RVs…if you hear us rockin come a knockin. Another church marquee states….So and so church…where worship is fun! One other reads…9:45 is our relaxed coffee hour service. I witnessed recently what your Romanian friend saw. I was at a funeral in an evangelical church. The foyer looked much more cozy than a Starbucks. It had a full coffee bar, oversized leather sofas, chairs and tables. If all of this isn’t a sell- out to our consumer/entertainment driven culture, I don’t know what is.
    This is in such stark contrast to our feast day of the Holy Dormition of the Mother of God on Saturday. Those who participated know why we honor so our blessed mother whose flesh made the Incarnation and our salvation in Christ possible.

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    They fill their “churches” with comforts and entertainments. The Orthodox, where possible, fill them with the bones and bodies of martyrs. The difference between the two is the revelation of the truth.

  6. Christina Chase Avatar

    And where is the sense of the Sacred when there is no Mystery and no living, ancient Tradition? We are losing far too much of what is important, far too much of truth, in our “need to know.” Another great article, thank you Fr. Stephen!

  7. Mark Avatar

    Fr. Stephen
    I was born in WestOblivionMyHomeTown. There was nowhere else. And though I grew up believing that I was as normal as the next boy, it wasn’t until my teen years that I discovered how horribly true this was. My family was as middle class, “white bread” as it could be. My parents worked hard, gave my sister and I what they could of the fruits of the middle class fields and even took us to church. Somehow though, all the rituals (we didn’t call them that of course, they were just our everyday ways) didn’t save us from the eventual breakdown or our family.

    Over the years, my sister and I came to discover that we grew up disconnected in some ways. I found out more about my mother at her funeral when co-workers stood up to talk about the woman they had worked with. Yes, we had cousins, aunts and uncles and even grandparents I’m sure, but nothing beyond that.

    Though I was an ardent evolutionist and considered myself an agnostic (I changed to a skeptic when I learned what an agnostic was) I was haunted by the notion that there might actually be a God who existed on His own terms. I had really had enough of fathers. In spite of my skepticism, there festered a wound in my heart. I really wanted to be connected somewhere-to belong. Not as one belongs to a club or a group of friends, but more precisely, as one belongs to a real family. Evolution could supply me with how mankind came to be, but never the why except in that horrible, vacuous, utilitarian sense you have spoken of. If ever there was a need to know, this was its taproot.

    It wasn’t “Sola Scriptura”, or an emotion filled appeal in a stadium somewhere that changed my mind and heart, but rather a peacefilled voice “out of the blue” on a hillside that only I heard. Among the things I heard in that voice was that I was seen, valued, maybe even connected.

    Certainly, living 68 years hasn’t cured my skepticism with regard to people and their motives. We are a broken lot. I read once that the problem we have in dealing with the evil we face is not that we don’t have answers. I spent a good deal of time studying the various approaches theologian take in dealing with evil. No, the real problem is that the answers we have are only in our heads; they are rational and have almost no existential value. Jesus had and has the answer. He became one of us, joined with us, connected with us and lifted us up to be with Him.

    As you quoted in a recent post, “Beloved, now we are children of God and it has not yet appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.” Somehow, and I can only speak for myself, my need to know is to try to see into a mystery before the time to allay my fears that I’m still lost somehow. Much of even the Christian life in this world is like the view of the backside of a tapestry – all seemingly a chaos of disconnected threads, but we have yet to see the front of the tapestry except where we can catch a glimpse of Him.

  8. Françoise Avatar

    I think this is why it is important that we fill our inner lives with the presence of the Lord at all times.

    Secularism is the world’s response to war, violence, chaos, and lack of love. People think removing religion and God from their lives will settle differences. It doesn’t. It creates a greater divide.

    I can see people are starving for a spiritual life. They think it is something else, not realizing the void is from removing the sacred in themselves. God has a tendency to fulfill us because we look to Him and not the world for answers to our lives.

    We need to remember what is sacred and holy. Too many modern American churches are nothing more than glorified community centers slash bars slash strip malls where the people are more interested in getting their social fix than communicating with God! That’s why Starbucks was invented. The church is a symbol of God’s relationship with mankind. It is the symbol of heaven on Earth, the kingdom to come. Too bad we’re slowly heading down the lane if Europe, where churches are seen as beautiful works of art, which is true, but that’s hardly reaching into the true meaning of their beauty.

    Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind…

  9. Dana Sumar Avatar
    Dana Sumar

    Dear Father Steven,
    I really like your comments and observations. It seems to me that you notice things others are ignoring, or at least, not discussing.
    I would appreciate your input on something not perhaps closely related to your topic, but related anyway.
    A good friend of mine, a devout Orthodox woman ( cradle ) surprised me greatly the other day.
    I was telling her about the Revelations course with Father Lawrence and how often it gets misinterpreted in the West.
    Her question was: How do we know we are right?
    My reply was that as Orthodox we just do as we received the whole truth and the Fathers help us understand it better.
    What do you think?

  10. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Your answer seems correct – though there are always some thing we know better than others. For example, Revelation has never figured very prominently in Orthodox tradition. It is certainly Scripture, but there are no readings appointed from it in Church. And there is actually no received (“traditioned”) interpretation. So, we work with what we have. We look at how it has been used (though very little), as well as good scholarship. We can know, for example, that the many “new” interpretations of Revelation that have grown up in American Evangelicalism over the past 2 centuries are largely nonsense. They are based on many, many false assumptions. Sometimes just knowing what is not true is as valuable as knowing what is.

  11. Boyd Camak Avatar
    Boyd Camak

    I think that this comment is relevant enough to post here.

    Fr. Stephen I wanted to say that your writing about faith as a set of practices (i.e. the 12/13/13 post entitled Do Faith to Have Faith) along with Thomas Martin Cothran’s short piece on First Things from 8/7/12 entitled Against Faith in Faith have saved my faith.

    I’m still attending an ACNA Anglican church.

    It’s early yet, but the simple practice of reading the Catholic Lectionary and reflection in the morning and praying The Little Rule of St Seraphim at night along with the insights from these two sources seem to have given me a rock to build on and a rest from my tortured “spiritual” thoughts and searching.

    Another author that has helped a lot is Anselm Grün.

    Thank you for this blog.


  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Our faith as an intellectual thing (thoughts) wavers quite a bit. And this is probably normal. The emotions and thoughts of a marriage waver a lot, as well, to make a comparison. But “practices” is a much better way to think of these things. I make my wife’s breakfast every morning, part of our routine. If I had to think about my mood, or whether I felt good enough about her to cook – the whole thing would be the occasion for constant disaster.

    What is needed, as you are finding, are real practices. It is the rhythm of such things that make life bearable. And even if you’re one of those who have great difficulty with routine, having some external practices can be very helpful. Making a prostration at the beginning of prayers (as in the little rule of St. Seraphim) helps. It is Christianity as an abstraction that is life on the edge of a secular abyss. We need feasts and fasts and the whole culture of the faith. These things arose in the life of the Church for a reason – and a good reason.

    If someone is not engaging in Christian practices, you can bet they are engaging in some other practices. I feel that in American culture, I’m speaking to a Christianity that has become suicidal and is standing on the edge. Talking it back down and giving it a better way, an ancient way, a Godly way to live, is the only option.

  13. Mark Avatar

    “This is eternal life, that they might know you, the one true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

    I seem to remember that there are several Greek words that are translated “know”, but certainly this is more than “head knowledge”. For a believer, I think it could be said, that all our knowing, our searching for “true truth” is finally our desire to know our God. This is perhaps part of what is meant by a sacramental life.

    We seek to peer into mysteries, in part because we are broken and disconnected and therefore vulnerable. While rational answers offer some comfort, there seems to exist also a deeper, more “existential” need to know. I hate to say “feel” in such an intellectual milieu, but what I mean is something other than facts. It is one thing to tell a cold person why he has the sensation of coldness, to explain the benefits of being warm and quite another to actually warm him up. Sharing the warmth is quite a different kind of “knowing”.

    To some extent, speaking for myself alone, I think much of my “need to know” is an attempt to feel warm.

  14. TimOfTheNorth Avatar

    “Rock ‘n Roll in Church seems normal, while incense demands Scriptural proof.”

    If that’s not the most brutal and spot-on indictment of 21st century low-church-ism, I’m not sure what is… Ouch!

  15. Janis Schmidt Avatar

    America was founded in part, on separation of church and state. That has come to mean you don’t pray anywhere but in church. Also, God has His own compartment on Sunday.

  16. Andrew T. Avatar
    Andrew T.

    “Rock ‘n Roll in Church seems normal, while incense demands Scriptural proof.”

    And the saddest part is, incense has TONS of scriptural proof.

  17. Alan Avatar

    TimOfTheNorth, ah, you beat me to it!! I was going to point out that same line as well. It is of course, spot on.

    Thank you Father for this outstanding article! I suspect that many who read your blog and have either become Orthodox or desire to become Orthodox, will resonate deeply with this post. Many of us have grown weary of our former churches where we have to “know” everything in a pseudo-intellectual manner.

  18. Gregory Manning Avatar
    Gregory Manning

    I seem to recall an anecdote from Fr. Hopko wherein he took his young son into the “sanctuary” of a large Baptist church. The boy asked if this was where they played basket ball!

  19. Andrew T. Avatar
    Andrew T.

    The Presbytarian churches in my town nowadays are hosting Presidental voting booths and zumba workouts. This is the death knell.

  20. James McKeown Avatar

    Dear Mark,
    You are spot on by your comment: “Much of even the Christian life in this world is like the view of the backside of a tapestry — all seemingly a chaos of disconnected threads, but we have to see the front of the tapestry …”
    Even certain saints do not see the front of the tapestry, e.g. St Paul lifted up to the third heaven …which is unable for a man to speak. However, we do get glimpses of a deeper meaning.
    Which reminds me of Plato’s cave. People are chained to the inner cave where they are only able to glimpse a reflection of the light on occasion. They believe that this is the essence of the eternal reality. However, when one of them breaks free of his chains and ventures to the mouth of the cave and beholds the source of the light.
    He then goes back to inform those still remaining chained to tell them. But they do not believe him.
    So we can only attempt to relay the deep reality to others that remain blinded by their empirical truth.
    Let us never give up trying!

  21. George Engelhard Avatar
    George Engelhard

    I’m sorry but I can’t remember the Father who said it, but on his list of things to repent of was curiosity.

  22. Alan Avatar

    @ Gregory, When I was a kid, I played in a church basketball league. One of the places we played games was a building that doubled as a basketball court on Sat, and the church building on Sunday. Even as an adult, I attended a “church” that met in a school gymnasium. A friend of mine who attended a different church that also met in a gym said that sometimes she found herself distracted during church, by reading the school’s state championship banners hanging from the ceiling.

  23. David P Avatar
    David P

    Thank you again, father; as a fellow convert, I find this post really helpful for approaching the frequent questions I hear about Orthodox practices. I hadn’t thought how frequently we do things without “proof” or a rational “foundation” both, in all kinds of worship and in general.

    In your mention of the reasons for icon veneration, though, do you mean to imply that the practice is ultimately incidental, a geographic accident within the Church? How does that fit with the seventh ecumenical council’s dogmatically validating it?

  24. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David P,
    I mean that the manner of venerating is culturally incidental. It still is. I can spot Russians when they venerate. They differ from Greeks and Romanians. Americans simply look too careful or awkward. 🙂

  25. Brian Avatar

    “Rock ‘n Roll in Church seems normal, while incense demands Scriptural proof.”

    A memorable gem of a sentence if ever there was one.

  26. […] any case, Fr. Freeman recently wrote a powerful blog entry that may as well have been directed to […]

  27. Ann K Avatar
    Ann K

    Your posts have been invaluable to me and the catalyst for my current conversion to Orthodoxy from a Protestant denomination. Thank you!

    One notion that opened my eyes (which might help Linda, who has commented on other posts here): to support sola scriptura is to say that Christianity sprung forth fully formed only when the Bible was put together about 400 years after the Resurrection. Not only is that illogical, but it can’t possibly be true!

  28. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Janis the US was not founded on a separation of church and state but rather on the notion of the separation of man from the divine. There could be a guaranteed freedom of religion because such freedom had no relation to truth or reality.

    Secular from the beginning.

  29. Dana Sumar Avatar
    Dana Sumar

    Thank you vary much, Father.

    “Sometimes just knowing what is not true is as valuable as knowing what is.”

    This is something I will use from now on… So true…

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