Thursday 18 October 2012

'Ranking' of Christian denominations in terms of their highest types


Eastern Orthodoxy aims at the highest level of theosis, of sanctification, of Holiness: aims at becoming a Saint with his head in Heaven and his feet on earth.

This is a hazardous aspiration since the path is long and fraught with the peril of spiritual pride and demonic sabotage. Hence the need for asceticism, monastic supervision, a system of Elders and Advisers.

The highest type is the 'desert'-dwelling meditative hermit and 'wonder-worker' with supernatural gifts. This ideal is probably only possible in a thoroughgoing Orthodox society, generally with an Orthodox monarch (e.g. Russia before 1917).


Roman Catholic Saints are much more varied than Orthodox Saints and with no particular ideal. Some Saints resemble the ideal of Orthodox sanctity; but others were Bishops, theologians, founders of orders, helpers of the poor, educators, healers etc.

The dedicated 'religious life' is seen as highest; but the religious life is not necessarily ascetic, meditative, eremitic or monastic.

The Roman Catholic ideal does not require the whole society being of that denomination, and seems to work within cohesive subcultures - however there is a critical mass of Priests, provision and organized liturgy and sacraments below which it is not really possible.


The highest ideal of the Anglican religious life is not generally agreed - but most of the examples have been clerics who are also great devotional writers. This life also requires a substantial degree of Church provision and legal support.


The Protestant evangelical ideal of devotion is perhaps the missionary (broadly considered) - a person of pious life and good behaviour, usually married and with a family, who by their example and Biblical exposition wins many converts.

The evangelical life is possible with very little in the way of church provision or formal organization.



Bruce B. said...

Which I guess means that the evangelical way is the most compatible with modern society.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB - That's what it looks like to me - if now now, then soon.

Brendan said...

Interesting typology. As someone who was a cradle Catholic until 12 years ago, when I was received into the Orthodox Church, some points seem perhaps a bit over-generalized or over-simplified.

In my own understanding of Orthodoxy, it isn't that being a monk is the "highest type", but rather that the practice of monks, due to how they live, holds much spiritual wisdom to help other non-monastic Orthodox to move towards theosis in their own non-monastical lives in the world. This needs to be done in consultation with a spiritual father/confessor, who may or may not be one's parish priest, in order to avoid prelest and so on as the Philokalia rightly describes. But it isn't as much of a "narrow type" as is stated here -- the "type" will depend on your own personal life circumstances, relationships, personae and so on. The *means*, however -- prayer, fasting, asceticism, sacrament, liturgy -- are constant and common to all types on the journey to theosis. The main difference in my own experience here with Catholicism is that Catholicism is more diverse in its "means" (at least in its current form), while Orthodoxy is more narrow in that sense -- our praxis is more narrow, but our personae and life circumstances are different, so even though we follow the same or similar praxis (or perhaps the same in abbreviated or relaxed form) the result will look very different across the population of observant Orthodox.

Also, theosis isn't really, in my understanding, having one's hands in heaven and one's feet on earth. It is rather simply having one's humanity converted/transformed/transfigured into the deified humanity of Christ, not by means of the "hypostatic union" as was the case in the person of Christ, but rather by means of the infinite grace of the Holy Spirit. It is having our humanity conformed to Christ's divinized humanity while retaining our own personae, and doing so "in Christ", and by the power of the Holy Spirit. It isn't always going to look like St. Seraphim of Sarov, because different individuals are different, but the *means* by which such divinization occurs is the same.

Also, Orthodox saints are quite a bit more varied than described here. Yes, there are the great ascetical saints among the desert Fathers and people like St. Mary of Egypt and St. Seraphim of Sarov, but there are also highly revered saints who were very involved in worldly affairs, like St. John of Kronstadt or St. Elizabeth New Martyr, as well as others who had very active lives in the Church itself (like Chrysostom, to take perhaps the most beloved example, but even in more recent times people like St. Raphael of Brookyln, St. Alexis Toth and St. Herman of Alaska come to mind) or who were simply marytred for the faith (like the Russian Royal Martyrs). All of these would have been observing a fairly narrow set of Orthodox praxis (same or similar prayer rules, similar fasting practices, same liturgical and sacramental life, etc.), but how this worked out in terms of what kind of lives this process of theosis created in these saints was quite diverse, and not really skewed towards the St. Seraphim/St. Mary variety really.

Bruce Charlton said...

@B - it is my impression that (aside from the very early Apostles and Fathers) the highest Orthodox Saints are precisely of the Saint Seraphim of Sarov type - there are other martyrs of course (since the USSR, constituting the numerical majority of Saints) but these seem to be regarded as lower ranking, and indeed not having their heads in Heaven and feet on the earth.

josh said...

Which ideal is the most like Christ?

Bruce Charlton said...

@josh - In my understanding I find that question misguided; we are supposed to love and obey Christ (etc) but not imitate Him (which is, of course, impossible, for fallen Men here on earth).

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

"...not to imitate Him (which is, of course, impossible..."
However, Jesus said that we should be perfect like the Heavenly Father. It is indeed impossible to realize this perfection and this perfect imitation in earthly life but we certainly are invited to correspond to grace and imitate Christ's virtues as best we can, otherwise there is not the slightest amount of theosis possible to us.

Also, I would like to point out to Brendan that the saints who lived before the Great Schism and were canonized by the Catholic Church are necessarily Roman Catholic, so they cannot be examples of particular types of Orthodox saints. Maybe the Orthodox prize other styles of sanctity than Catholics do, but I personally don't see any striking difference. Heroicity of virtues can be expressed in so many different ways...

josh said...


That is what I was thinking.

Bruce Charlton said...

@josh and Sylvie - probably we don't disagree - but I am worried by the *temptation* for modern, low grade, Christians to try and replicate the behaviour of Jesus who was without sin.

I think to live in a manner similar to Christ is only possible for those of very advanced holiness (e.g. Saints), and for most people it would be an abolute disaster - for example, exposing them to many temptations; so many and so strong that they would almost certainly succumb.

For nearly everybody now alive, to try and live like Christ would therefore be an example of that most dangerous of all sins: spiritual pride.

AlexT said...

"Also, I would like to point out to Brendan that the saints who lived before the Great Schism and were canonized by the Catholic Church are necessarily Roman Catholic, so they cannot be examples of particular types of Orthodox saints."

They are necessarily Orthodox, as it is the RC church that initiated the schism by adding the filioque clause.

Kristor said...

To imitate Christ is not to _try_ to live or act in any specific way. If you are trying at all, you are missing the point - you are either living as a Pelagian or a Gnostic. The imitation of Christ is simply to follow the Great Commandments, upon which all the Law - and all the specifics of the application thereof - depend. Indeed, even mere existence depends upon some minimal love of God. First love God and all else will fall into place; which is to say, you'll attain theosis.

Have you not yet attained theosis? What have you adored more than God? Stop. Stop whoring after that worldly customer who will somehow pay you for your love with worldly coin, and return to your bridegroom.

Every creature is capable of this.

Brendan said...

Also, I would like to point out to Brendan that the saints who lived before the Great Schism and were canonized by the Catholic Church are necessarily Roman Catholic, so they cannot be examples of particular types of Orthodox saints.

Fair point, which is why I specifically mentioned only Eastern pre-schism saints in my comment. While it's true that St. Mary of Egypt and St. John Chrysostom are also recognized as saints in the Catholic Church, it's also quite misleading to suggest (not saying that you were, but your comment could be read this way) that these saints are of equal importance in Eastern and Western Christianity, particularly concerning the kinds of "typology" being discussed here. Perhaps a more accurate categorization for the OP would have been to distinguish between Eastern and Western, rather than Catholic and Orthodox, because the latter distinction raises the issue of the pre-schism undivided East/West Church which encompassed both approaches to spirituality.