Universalism, Fundamentalism, and I think I took a wrong turn
Buckle in; this is a long one. So I just finished reading (finally) David Bentley Hart’s treatise on universalism, That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. I avoided it for a time because of a disappointing review by my good friend Giacomo (here).
But it lays plain the very thoughts I’ve had about Hell for many years, starting with a story of an autistic child traumatized by the realization of what Hell means. I was that child myself, 40 years ago, and the trauma never left, leading to a spiritual OCD or scrupulosity of the type often experienced by those of us raised in fundamentalist religious groups. Not only did I fear that one unrepented slipup before death could lead to eternal Hell, but I constantly inwardly groaned for and prayed for the souls of both the dead and the living, afraid that most of them were in Hell, including all Catholics born before Luther came along (because they–I was taught–went to Hell because nobody knew to say the Sinner’s Prayer).
I inwardly groaned constantly in prayer for the souls of the 3000 killed on 9-11, especially when the pastor in our EFCA church said most of them went to Hell. One day on the way out the door to work, I thought of a hypothetical Muslim woman living her life in, say, Saudi Arabia just as I would do, piously following her faith, doing housework and taking care of kids and dealing with husband and the like, then going to Hell because she wasn’t a Christian. None of it seemed fair, yet my religion told me my doubts were heretical.
I looked at the Separation of the Sheep from the Goats again, and none of it said people who weren’t Christians went to Hell. It was all about behavior: who cared about their fellow humans, and who didn’t. I even wrote this down. Yet I felt like a heretic. Several years later, it was a relief to find that Orthodox thinking was the same as mine.
When I turned away from Evangelicalism entirely and into the Presbyterian Church (USA), I thought I was done. This was a moderate church, so as I said, I could go back and forth from conservative to liberal and back again and stay in the same church. I was interested in their views on abortion and gay rights, which seemed refreshingly moderate. Then I read in the denominational magazine that there are universalists in the church and this is okay, so I started seeking them out.
I learned about five patriarchates in the Early Church and universalism being the accepted view, and looked for historical backing for this claim. I asked my new Orthodox friend Richard (the Narcissist) what Orthodoxy says about this, and it seemed to back this up. Treatises such as the River of Fire and St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and Resurrection made my heart erupt with joy and stop doubting or despairing over the existence of God (at least temporarily).
At first I looked at Orthodox beliefs and despaired that I couldn’t join that church because of its regressive views on homosexuality, women, and abortion. But I kept researching Orthodoxy and couldn’t resist the siren call of the theology, the artwork, the incense, the supposed ancient Christianity (as opposed to endless variations of Scholasticism, Reformation, Wesleyism, Pietism, Calvinism, etc. etc.). Now we had the Energies of God, Tartarus and Hades and Gehenna instead of Hell, no Total Depravity, no Wrath of God, no Penal Substitution…. It was like a dream.
Incidentally, as I work on this, the song Wings of a Butterfly by HIM has come up in my Master Playlist, which is my media playlist of all my records and tapes and CDs, digitized and combined with all my MP3s. That song came out while I was researching these things, and I played it over and over again late at night while the household slept and I surfed the Web for information on Orthodox theology. It reminded me of this search and of Richard, who I was also talking to about Orthodoxy.
St. Gregory of Nyssa became my patron saint. I got the name “Nyssa” in my Internet handle from Doctor Who, but discovered St. Gregory’s name in an encyclopedia one day in my teens, which surprised me. I didn’t know Nyssa was a real name, rather than one made up for the show. It used to be “Nyssa of Traken,” later dropping “of Traken” because some BBS bullies turned it into NOT, but picking up “the Hobbit” in 2001 because MSN Messenger said there were too many Nyssas. It was only later that I knew anything at all about St. Gregory of Nyssa. After I learned he was a universalist, I also learned he was a kindred spirit, so I took him as my patron saint in 2009. Now I learn that DB Hart is enamored with St. Gregory as well, and I think, “Another kindred spirit!”
For many years, I was satisfied in Orthodoxy. The doctrine was perfect; my church was ecumenical and allowed for different opinions on politics and religious practices; there were no headscarves or Harry Potter hatred; women wore pants and sometimes even tennis shoes in church; women did the readings and had a lot of power in the church; nobody talked about Toll Houses or Father Seraphim Rose; wives held jobs and used birth control; it wasn’t at all fundie. To this day I have no idea how the priest in those days voted. His daughter was definitely a liberal. The Net-o-doxy I found on Internet forums was just a strange strain of fundamentalist fervor that had nothing to do with real-life Orthodoxy. Richard told me not to let the Net-o-dox keep me away from Orthodoxy.
At first I still followed the idea I’d been raised with, that the Church and the Bible define what is correct; I was moving in a liberal direction regarding all sorts of things, but some quotes from the Fathers convinced me that original Orthodoxy condemned abortion, homosexual behavior, etc., so I had to go with that. The Net-o-dox also got me thinking for a time that the Right way of doing things was for a parent to stay at home with the children rather than using Day Care. My liberal drift was temporarily halted.
I’m not exactly sure why I veered back on track again. Something hit me one day and made me think I was spending too much time on the Orthodox forums and needed to get back onto the Goth forums I’d been neglecting. Shortly after this, the spell was broken, my mind cleared, I started looking more at science instead of religion for science facts, remembered that women should do whatever is best for their family, started watching the Daily Show and Colbert, and wondered what had come over me. But I stayed on the Orthodox path, joining officially in 2009–completely coincidentally on the feast day of St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Now I fear that I may have made a wrong turn somewhere. For one thing, I never have reconciled myself to the church’s insistence on full burial instead of cremation. It seems a waste of money and usable land to me. But I had other things to think about. In the past decade, I was distracted by things like recovering from the narcissistic abuse and spell put over me by Richard and his wife, then the fear and loathing brought on by a narcissistic sociopath named Trump becoming president. 2020 came and COVID brought out the worst in people, severing relationships and showing us just how sick this country is now. Fascists and their guns are threatening the peace of everyone, shooting up shopping malls and schools, threatening officials, rumbling about Civil War. There was no time to pay attention to what was going on in the Greek Orthodox Church of America. I had no idea until it hit my own church.
Our Archbishop said we could use separate spoons for the Eucharist when the churches opened up, but all of our Metropolitans refused. So I refused to go to church until I got my vaccine. So we were to follow all these rules of social distancing and masking, yet share a spoon with a couple dozen other people? We might as well sit next to each other and breathe on each other! Believing the Eucharist protects you from disease has proven to be magical thinking and false; not only did I find anecdotal evidence of disease spreading that way, but there were news reports of COVID spreading through Serbian Orthodox funerals. I write about this here. But finally, just in time for Eastern Palm Sunday 2021, I had my J&J shot and the antibodies had time to propagate. I came and I shared the Eucharist for the first time since February 2020, when we celebrated the retirement of our last priest.
Then after church, as I waited by the door for my husband to pick me up, a new person I didn’t know started yelling and screaming and pointing her finger at the parish president and some other new person I didn’t know. I’d seen her online, so she’d been masking up for a while, but for some reason she chose this day to yell about it. She said that in Greece they call them “clown masks” and that the nuns at the local monastery were trying to get rid of the Metropolitan for requiring them. Another person I knew rolled his eyes; the other new person said to the president, “She’s right.” I was tense and upset and wondered what the frick was going on in my church.
In the time since, I’ve discovered things changed a lot in the COVID year. New priest, new people, new influx of tales about what the nuns in that monastery say about this or that. Visits to the monastery. Politics and culture wars in the sermons.
Going through old posts on my blog, I’m reminded that I’ve doubted my conversion in the past, but chosen to stay put. These posts are here and here; they go into detail I don’t have time or space to put in this post. They’re from 2013 and 2018–so, basically, every 5 years is a crisis of faith over one thing or another, and something makes me stay put.
But my liberal beliefs are staying put as well. I’ve put 20 or 30 years of thought, observation, and research into them. Up until now, I was able to keep going to my church despite them. But what happened in the COVID year to change everything? How did we go from priests who don’t tell you how to vote or think, to a priest who tells you the right thinking about everything from what school to put your kids in to what party to vote for? How did we get a priest who says the government is evil? Sure I’d hear things like this in the church basement from parishioners or the archon. Sure the last priest occasionally complained about culture wars. But I could roll my eyes and ignore it, keep going on, remember that we have Democrats in the church. What changed?
I’ve been doing research, posts on Reddit, Google searches, whatever I can find. And this sums it all up:
The Greek church in America has been infected by a network of spiritually abusive, fundamentalist, and financially/ethically questionable monasteries planted by the late Elder Ephraim. While I enjoyed the peace of my own ecumenical church, Ephraimite teachings have been spreading throughout America, especially in my own Metropolis. Many people–fervent believers, active in their churches, NOT Easter-Christmas Christians–have left the church over this. A decade ago, a Monastery Review Committee was even put together to investigate these monasteries and make recommendations–only to have their report put on a shelf six years ago to never see the light of day.
My research has revealed that I, with my liberal ideas and horror at Ephraimite teachings, have a LOT of company in the Greek church. Many people just like me have hoped the archdiocese will become more open and inclusive to both women in clerical roles and LGBTQ+. But of the many issues causing parishes to leak members, this spread of Ephraimite ideas is one of the major reasons devoted members of the Orthodox church are leaving it for good. There have been reports of people going into the monasteries and being spiritually abused; one person, Scott Nevins, even committed suicide on the steps of the Arizona monastery. I never heard about any of this until now, even though it all happened in the past decade. And our local monastery, part of the Ephraimite network, keeps popping up in reports I find.
Ephraimite ideas include the Aerial Toll House heresy, encouraging married couples to live as brother and sister, fundamentalist practices for women, us vs. them, following the Elder and not ecumenical priests, they’re “spiritual” and ecumenists are not.
Some of the Ephraimite ideas remind me of things Richard told me back in the long-ago times: his complaints that my church was too ecumenical, too Western.
I fear that Richard’s influence, and a spell woven over me by love-bombing Orthodox forums, may have led me in the wrong direction. Don’t listen to the Netodox, they said. Don’t listen to the fundamentalist sites; they’re not truly Orthodox, they said. Now there’s been a fundamentalist backlash all across this nation, and it’s infecting politics, culture, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Evangelicalism, everything. We have conmen such as Jay Dyer, the Monomakhos site, Josiah Trenham, and others, telling us falsehoods about religion and politics, and saying this is Orthodoxy. The woman-hating incels and MRAs are telling us to reject feminism and be manly bodybuilders if we want to be Orthodox. I never used to hear about this local monastery at church, but now I keep hearing in sermons and in the basement what the nuns think about politics, COVID, burial practices, religion….. Now we’re doing annual trips there.
One sermon praised Kyle Rittenhouse and said the nuns were praying for him. Another denied racism exists in the church. Another said that teachers are making our kids trans, so we have to pull them out of public schools, and we have an evil government, and oh by the way, don’t be afraid to discipline your kids. (“Discipline” in what way, exactly?) God doesn’t make people trans, that sermon said, so teach your boys to be men and your girls to be women. Then after the sermon, a parishioner went up to the priest and said, “I blame the parents.”
That was three months ago. I haven’t been back since. That was my What The F*ck moment, though really it was the culmination of a series of WTF moments. But I haven’t officially left because my mind is still reeling, my heart is still sunk, I found a potential new spiritual home, but just jumping out of my church home of 16 years is frightening and dismaying. I fear letting people down. But I look around–Reddit, Facebook, Twitter–and find many other Orthodox believers who have either left the church or are seriously considering it over these same things.
Here are my best sources of information on the Ephraimite monasteries, including a blog post written by one of the members of that Monastery Review Committee:
Who Lost Chicago? by Bill George Stotis of the MRC
Religious Pluralism, Fundamentalism and Contested Identities in North American Orthodox Religious Life: The Case of the Greek Orthodox Church in North America by Professor Frances Kostarelos
Video of the above presentation
News Report by NBC affiliate in Arizona on spiritual abuse in Ephraimite monastery there, parts one and two
But what I really wanted all along was to be a Universalist! I didn’t want to escape the spiritual abuse of fundamentalist/Evangelical churches, only to enter another spiritually abusive church! I didn’t want to escape the lie that Christian=Republican, only to find it again in a new church! I feel bait and switched. I thought these things were not present in Greek Orthodoxy in America.
Update 4/9/23: More research is turning up another side to GOARCH, Greeks who say that the Ephraimite influence is being dealt with (though my own eyes and Bill Stotis say otherwise), and a huge backlash against our Archbishop Elpidophoros, because the fundies of other jurisdictions say he’s bringing “woke” ideas into the Church. Online and in PEW survey reports I find plenty of Greeks who want to see a more progressive church. I read the interview with Elp. here and find many reasons to hope. Some people online think he’s meant to be the next Ecumenical Patriarch. Meanwhile, our Metropolitan is trying to get the churches to be more inclusive of women/girls. Is it possible–Is there still reason to stay where I am? Do people spread rumors about Elp. and our Metropolitan because they’re upset about these things, and not because they’re true? Should I stay and work for change instead of switching to a liberal church with theology derived from the Reformation and bland services? Do I really have to leave Orthodoxy when people like David Bentley Hart and Archbishop Puhalo are still in it? I’ll have to see what happens–Will the fundies drum out Elp. and people like me? Or will we be able to work for change at last?