13-3. The Orthodox Church And Phronema
All religions, true Christianity included, result in the development of a mindset. But it is often unconsciously achieved. Yet Orthodox Christians are subjected to the unashamed development of an Orthodox phronema, or mindset. For this is what Orthodoxy is all about- consciously developing the Orthodox phronema. You can see why Orthodoxy so readily replaced Communism in the Eastern bloc after the collapse of the USSR- the people were accustomed to having a consciously developed mindset thrust upon them. To exist within such a system became the norm, indeed in practice for most people, it was the only psychologically feasible way to live life. Of course a few broke out of it, or wanted to; there’s one in every crowd who wants to walk the other way. And even more so today, where the penalties for doing so are not so severe as under Communism. And it is to this minority that our teaching has a real, credible appeal.
The Phrónema concept is a big thing with the Orthodox. It’s a Greek word that refers to living the orthodox life with a particular mindset or outlook- with an Orthodox mind. It is closely related with
sanctification or Salvation- which is through Grace (the uncreated Energy of God's Life), and whose three major phases include, in succession, CATHARSIS or PURIFICATION, ILLUMINATION, and THEOSIS or DIVINIZATION. It should be noted that the Orthodox consider that even approaching the beginnings of the first phase is a rare feat among Christians today. Most of us (with the exception of some Saints) who desire and try to live for Christ, fail to get through the first phase; all three phases will be truly accomplished only in the next life. This reminds me of what I consider to be one of the major faults of Buddhism and Hinduism- a seeking for something which by definition is impossible. It results in the mindset that we are all miserable sinners with no real chance of attaining anything much in this life. Thus loyalty to the church is the only hope of salvation, and a salvation which one cannot in any case be very certain of... We need to stress that the New Testament speaks of real, actual transformation through the genuinely human Jesus, whose sacrifice gives us right now “victory”. Yes, our hope for God’s nature will only be realized in the future, but there is a transforming power about God’s truth here and now. We aren’t inevitable sinners, vainly trying to be spiritual. We can have a definite hope of eternity through grace, as the Orthodox admit (and we do well to point out any similarities of position which there are), but this results in a real change in our present living.
The Mind of Christ
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos speaks of the phronema in his book The Mind of the Orthodox Church: “in the biblico-patristic Tradition the whole turn of mind which prevails in a man from the way in which he lives...if the nous [i.e., the spiritual intellect, not to be confused with " reason" ] is darkened, then the whole mind is carnal. But if the nous is illuminated, which means that is has the Holy Spirit within it, then the whole mind is a mind of spirit and, of course, a mind of the Church.... When we speak of having an orthodox mind we mean chiefly that our nous is the nous of Christ, as the Apostle Paul says, or at least that we accept the experience of the saints and have communion with them. This is the way of the life of the Orthodox Tradition and the way of life of Christ's life. The orthodox mind is expressed by the dogmas of the Church, because, on the one hand, the dogmas express the life which the Church has and the revelation which the saints have received, and on the other hand, they lead the passionate people and the babes in Christ to unity and communion with God”.
Realize what is going on here. The mind of the church is equated with the mind of Christ. Christ has become the Orthodox church. Yet before we reject this out of hand, we must recognize that the true church is indeed the body of Christ. But the mind of Christ is the mind of Christ, not the mind of the church. The dogmas and traditions of the Orthodox church are equated with the mind of Christ. This is so wrong. We find the mind of Christ in the Gospels. We must discover for ourselves the mind of Christ from our Bible reading, and seek to become a new creation in His mental image. Yet the Orthodox are approaching it from the other way- they are saying that the church defines who Jesus is. If we want to know who Jesus is, the Orthodox say, then look at the church. We say: look at the Gospels and reconstruct in your own mind who Jesus really was and is, and seek to conform our lives to that image. The real Christ has been replaced by the Orthodox church fathers; Christ has been replaced by dogma just as in so many religions.
Whilst on the surface it may appear commendable that the Orthodox teach the need for the mind of Christ, their teaching on this point comes close to the idea of the dissolution of the individual in God which is found in the Asian religions. The idea is that through 'Theosis', the divinization of the individual, the person's self is replaced with Christ. Hence the large scale of Orthodox architecture, which like Communist architecture, sought to dwarf the individual into insignificance. Just as Communist planning built huge, unnecessarily tall apartment blocks to house works on remote collective farms, so Orthodoxy builds churches far bigger than required in small villages. Yet this dwarfing and replacement of the individual self isn't Biblical. The Bible and the teaching of Jesus especially gives enormous value to persons; for we ourselves shall by God's grace be saved, we shall rise again at the Lord's return, we shall be given a personal body, we shall relate as persons with others. And this needs emphasis in all our discussions with Orthodox believers.