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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Interview with Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy

A couple months ago, I grabbed a copy of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: Exploring Belief Systems through the Lens of the Ancient Christian Faith, by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, and even though I have two religion degrees I discovered facts I never knew and learned ways of expressing ideas that were incredibly helpful.  


Fr. Andrew does the seemingly impossible in a mere 224 pages.  He gives a broad scope of Orthodox belief, but details every imaginable brand of Christianity, cult, and world religion.  


The book originally began as a podcast series on Ancient Faith radio with the same name, but don't be afraid of redundant content, there is plenty of new information expressed clearly for the religion teacher and the non-specialist.  


Last week, two Mormon missionaries stopped by front door, leading to a brief but cordial conversation.  Retelling this encounter to a friend, prompted the idea of a future series in our Sunday School that will use this book as our textbook.  


Fr. Andrew was gracious enough to take interview questions, and you will find the questions and thoughtful answers below.  


 1.  For me, the Catholic section of the book was extremely helpful, because
this is an area where I could shore up my knowledge.  Have you had any
Catholic reaction or interaction with the book?

Fr. Andrew:  Almost everyone who contacts me about the book is either already an Orthodox Christian or in the process of either considering Orthodoxy or becoming Orthodox.  So I don't think I can recall any direct reaction from any current Roman Catholics on the book.

That said, there were some Roman Catholics present when I delivered the lectures in Emmaus (which were the ones recorded for the "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy" podcast).  Some mainly listened.  A couple of them criticized what I was saying.  Some of their criticisms were based in ignorance of what their own church teaches (or perhaps, the ignorance of their teachers), and some were criticisms based essentially in the reality that we didn't share the same theology. But some turned out to be things I had gotten wrong or emphasized wrongly.  So I used some of their criticisms to correct the text as it was being prepared for publication.  I also consulted friends who could help me delve more deeply into their theology beyond the kind of thing one finds in official catechisms and papal statements.


 2.  I often get basic questions about "What is Orthodoxy?", and they are
 usually in contexts where I can't give a historical dissertation or
 theological lecture.  Usually someone is asking whether I am Jewish, and
 just needs cliff notes version.  Have you developed an "elevator speech"
 that you you use in these situations?

Fr. Andrew:  Honestly, I'm not really a fan of the "elevator speech" for serious topics like the meaning of life and the universe (which is what religion is about).  Nevertheless, I do think one should have a ready answer, even when there are only a few minutes to deliver it.  But you can't say everything, and our faith strongly  resists being summarized.

So I think the best approach is to try to leave a "hook" in people's minds, something that can later be used to hang a future experience of Orthodoxy upon.  I might say something like, "Orthodoxy is the first and oldest of all Christian churches" or "Orthodoxy is the church that still lives in the places where the Apostles were" or even "Orthodoxy is the faith that connects with the whole human being -- not just his mind and emotions, but all his senses, too."  It very much depends on what I imagine might connect with the person standing in front of me.

I also keep a business-sized "contact card" on hand with basic information about my church (location, website, phone number, that we have daily church services, etc.), so that I can hand it to people and
let them follow-up later. 


3.  It seems that a lot of the book was developed organically in your parish
 life, as you designed these lectures to help equip people in their faith and
 interaction with others.  What specifically did you learn when writing?
  Were you surprised by anything?

Fr. Andrew:  My family's original name from Lithuania (Domeika) comes from a Lithuanian word meaning "to be interested in something."  So I suppose we're curious people.  I wasn't really surprised, exactly, though I did learn much that I had never heard of while doing the research, and people in my family often delight in collecting a vast array of details on any particular topic.  We seem to like encyclopedias, and in some sense, this was a chance to make something like that of my own.

What honestly did surprise me, though, was not really in the writing, but rather in the delivery, first at my previous parish in Charleston, West Virginia, and now in my current one in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and
that was this:  People actually are interested in theology.  Now, if you say, "Hey, let's talk theology," most folks' eyes glaze over, but try saying, "Do you think that you can 'get saved' and you keep that forever, no matter what you do after that?'"  I find questions like that gain fascinating engagement.  And even though advertising a class in "comparative theology" might turn people's minds snoozing, saying "Hey, let's talk about the religions of our neighbors and friends and how they're different from ours" turns out to be pretty interesting to a lot of folks.

I was extremely surprised both of the times I delivered the lectures that I had dozens of people show up from multiple churches.  Most of the classes I do draw perhaps a dozen to twenty people, but the
"Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy" series never had fewer than fifty, and sometimes as many as a hundred.

And of course I also remain surprised at how much attention both the podcast and the book have gotten.  You can ask my wife -- I'm not really sure what to do about it!  

 4.  I am really glad that you included non-Christian religions in the book,
 considering our pluralistic society and the need for us and our children to
 interact with people of various faiths.  Are there any non-Christian people
 that you have been able to interact with, and discuss Orthodoxy?  If so,
 what have you learned?

Fr. Andrew:  As I said above, relatively few non-Orthodox people have contacted me about the podcast or book.  But I have had a few non-Christians say things to me like, "After reading all this, if I ever became a
Christian, Orthodox is the only kind I could ever be."  

 5.  Here's a big question: Your book truly has a worldwide appeal, and not
 focused primarily to an American audience (outside those forms of
 Christianity that arose here), but you minister in America.  What can
 Orthodox people do to make greater inroads into American life?

Fr. Andrew:  Primarily, we have to reject the secularist idea that almost every other religious body has tacitly acceded to in America, namely, the idea that religion is something that is private and that it is not
polite to talk about it publicly, and that therefore it is appropriately relegated to one hour or two of the week but has little to do with the other 166 hours.  That is utter nonsense.  What could be of more public concern than the meaning of life?  Is it really worth it to remain quiet and polite when eternal souls are at stake?
And do we actually think the brief training in holiness we receive on Sunday mornings is enough to teach us to be citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, when we spend 34 hours a week being trained by our televisions
to be consumers (not to mention all the other kinds of training we receive).  I think our biggest problems are probably cowardice and laziness.

That said, our main task in bringing America into the Orthodox Church is to become actually cognizant that we should be doing that!  If the roughly one million active Orthodox Christians in America actually all
agreed with the sentence, "It is my duty to bring all of my family, friends, neighbors and co-workers into Christ's Church," you probably wouldn't even be asking me that question.

We could of course talk about numerous questions of technique and method, but I think our biggest obstacle is that, collectively, we've got our identity wrong.


6.  Any future projects?

Fr. Andrew:  I'm currently working on another book with Conciliar Press (title forthcoming), whose purpose will be to introduce Orthodox Christianity to the unchurched and the ex-churched, people who either have no real religious affiliation at all or who gave up on it, probably out of disgust or hopelessness.  With that audience in mind, it will deal with the most primal and basic questions of Christian faith:  How do
we know anything about God?  What is worship, and why should we do it?  Whom can you trust to tell you about God?  What is the point in being moral?

It's a tough assignment, and these and related questions haunt me at times, because I'm not always sure I know the answers, but I believe that we have to ask these questions, even those of us who are already
"churched."  Because if we don't know why we're there, then what are we doing there, anyway?  And if we don't know why we're there, then what business do we have in inviting someone else?

Thanks again Fr. Andrew!  
Theron Mathis

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