A Review of Donald Fairbairn's Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes

A Review of Donald Fairbairn's Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes

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A Review of Donald Fairbairn's Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes

"Our calling is not to blaze a trail, for Christ has done that for us. Rather, our task is to join the many who have walked and are walking the path, to follow the footprints leading to eternity and to God."
-Donald Fairbairn

In Donald Fairbairn's "Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes", Fairbairn takes the basic beliefs of Orthodoxy and explains them from a Western point of view. It's evident that this book was written for those of the Protestant faith due to the language used and the issues they address. Although he describes the theology correctly, his interpretation of what the theology means and what it means to Orthodox Christians is inaccurate and almost offensive.
Fairbairn decided to break the book into three parts so that he could properly explain Orthodoxy with a Western perspective. In the first part, Fairbairn explains where the source of the Orthodox Vision comes from. He claims that the source is Tradition. He talks about the tradition of the church and how we express said tradition. In the second part of the book he talks about the heart of the Orthodox Vision, which he asserts is the Union with God. He delves into basic theology and explains salvation and humanity in a way that "Westerners" can understand. I think he accurately reports on the basic Orthodox Theology and he writes in such a way that those who are uneducated on this matter can easily comprehend. The third section of this book, which is titled "The Orthodox Vision and Its Distortions", Fairbairn talks about "Popular Orthodoxy" and actions and views that Orthodox faithful do that are incorrect (i.e. the emphasis on the Saints etc.). In my opinion Fairbairn takes this opportunity to criticize Orthodoxy and point out some major faults that the Orthodox faithful have. He states that the church is "Triumphalistic" and does not have any tolerance for other faiths and their churches . I plan on expanding on part three later on in this review and more particularly popular Orthodoxy. Even though the book was dry and at times boring, Fairbairn's assessment of Orthodoxy is fairly accurate in parts one and two.
By reading this book, it's clear that the author, Donald Fairbairn is very educated on the facts, and history of Orthodoxy and its Theology.

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But when it comes to the interpretation of the theology Fairbairn misses the target. I felt that his explanations were inaccurate and some of his claims were erroneous. For example, in part three, Fairbairn brings up Popular Orthodoxy and how the laypeople of the Orthodox Church have neglected theology and chose solely spiritual faith over it. Fairbairn cites Florovsky, "the faith of the old nanny, or of the illiterate churchgoer, was considered as the model and most authentic type [of Christianity]." I interpreted this as people today seeing the church in this light. I was troubled to read this because I don't think that people in the Orthodox Church reason that way. I feel that Fairbairn thinks of the Orthodox faithful as superstitious people who will believe anything that a Bishop or Priest tells them. He doesn't truly understand the use of icons and relics in the church and almost pokes fun at them in his book. He also compares the Orthodox to Pagans. "…paganism beneath a Christian veneer is also present in popular Orthodoxy…" and compares Saints of the church to Pagan God's, "…Christian saints often inherited the mythological traditions of pagan deities worshipped in pre-Christian Russia."
Fairbairn's presentation of Orthodoxy was both fair and unfair and accurate and inaccurate on many different levels. Like stated before, part one and part two (with the exception of Chapter seven on the Saints) of "Eastern Orthodoxy…" are informative and accurate but when it comes to chapter seven and part three, Fairbairn interprets Orthodox theology and his interpretation is faulty. Fairbairn does a wonderful job capturing the Orthodox Church's' tradition and nicely compares it to the Protestant and Roman Catholic understanding of church and community,
"… [Protestants] view the church as a community of people who have responded through the faith in Christ to what God has revealed in his Word… Roman Catholic understanding… focuses on the hierarchy… In contrast, Eastern Orthodoxy sees the Church as a mystical entity that comprises God's direct activity."
Fairbairn uses great scriptural support and accurately describes the church as spiritual and theological at the same time. Where he misses the mark though, are his thoughts on the Saints, the use of icons in Orthodox daily worship and the use and presence of Holy Relics in worship services, and church buildings. According to Fairbairn, "…veneration of the Saints is…tantamount to blasphemy because it denies the uniqueness of Christ as the one mediator between God and humanity." Fairbairn could not be more wrong with this statement. If it wasn't for the respect and attention we give to the Saints we wouldn't be able to glorify God and get close to Him. This is one of Orthodoxy's most distinguishing and unique qualities, the veneration and recognition of Saints as intercessors. Fairbairn unfairly attacks the veneration and use of icons in chapter seven and claims that the Orthodox faithful worship images, thus violating the second commandment, "Eastern emphasis on icons is essentially idolatry." Fairbairn cites Ouspensky who delivers a nice defense for the Orthodox, "Icons are intermediaries between the represented person and the praying faithful, causing them to commune in grace." The use of icons in spiritual life is found only in the Orthodox church. No other religion can understand the use of these objects and no other religion will be able to until they actually experience it. It's understandable that the Protestants are uncomfortable with the use of icons but they need to realize (which, I know, is a very difficult thing to imagine) that for the Orthodox, veneration of the icons and Saints are an important and necessary aspect of our religion. Finally, Fairbairn puts his two cents in on Holy Relics. He makes it seem that Orthodox worship these Relics and look to them for special powers, "… [the relics] came to be regarded as sacred objects having the effects of communicating their power to those who touched them." In reality we reaffirm our faith with the aid of the Holy Relics.
I don't believe Donald Fairbairn's criticisms are justified. It's clear that he doesn't understand the true mysteries of the church and it's a shame that he, in a way, ruins the things most special to Orthodoxy. Dr. Katos, a professor at Hellenic College, spoke about the Saints in his Introduction to Orthodoxy class and commented that, (and I paraphrase) "the Orthodox church finds these people [the Saints] so important that they commemorate certain ones in every service (i.e. the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist, Sts. Joachim and Anna etc.) and the Saint of the day in the service done that day…" The Saints are so important because they defended the word of God and message of Christ, they died by the blade for the Lord, they wrote countless works to make understanding Gods message easier for future Christians, that without these men and women, Orthodoxy would not be the upstanding and glorious religion that it is today. There are no Saints in the Protestant church, they don't understand the difference between worship and veneration, and obviously Fairbairn doesn't see the difference.
I think Fairbairn views the Orthodox Church as Triumphalistic and dangerous to other religions. He asserts, "…being a member of the Orthodox Church is more significant than having a genuine desire to follow Christ." I was personally bewildered by that statement. Fairbairn supports this statement by mentioning Russian Orthodox propaganda against Protestantism and then offers a little bit of advice to the Orthodox Church,
"Orthodoxy needs to care more for the spiritual state of the people of Russia, Greece, Romania and others, than for the simple maintenance of its own supremacy to other confessions in those regions… Perhaps Orthodoxy needs to be less Triumphalistic and more willing to value the contributions that other Christian confessions can make to the spiritual life of its people."
Comparing "Eastern Orthodoxy…" with His Grace, Kallistos Ware's book, "The Orthodox Way" Orthodoxy is explained more comprehensively and even though complex at times, serves a better explanation to theological questions then Fairbairn's book. When it comes to just pure facts, Bishop Ware's book, "The Orthodox Church" streamlines Orthodox Christian theology and puts it into one comprehensive and easy to understand book that's appropriate for "cradle" Orthodox, Protestants or Roman Catholics. I'm able to understand and appreciate the tone of Bishop Ware's book. Where in Fairbairn's book, the attitude is almost criticizing and condescending, Bishop Ware speaks with enlightenment and education. I appreciate the tone in Bishop Ware's work and prefer it to Fairbairn.
It is my hope that Orthodox people, anyone thinking of converting to the church or anyone interested in the church exercise extreme caution before they read this book. They need to understand that this book is taken from the Protestant perspective and is an observation of the Orthodox Faith. Donald Fairbairn's depiction of Eastern Orthodoxy in "Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes" is a disappointment. Even though his theological facts are mostly correct, his interpretation of what the theology means and its significance to the Orthodox Faithful is imprecise and in the wrong.
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