I sometimes talk about a version of Christianity, Orthodoxy, that is not well known in the West; whenever I say that I am Orthodox, people usually think I am an Orthodox Jew. Western and Eastern Christianity may be divided by many things, and I will not go into details here. However, I will mention three aspects especially because I think that sometimes they are not associated with what people call Christianity in the public sphere.
First of all, in Orthodoxy we do not encounter the idea of the two worlds that comes from Greek philosophy. In this sense, Christianity is not Platonism. At least it is not Platonism as it has been traditionally understood, that is the idea that we live here in a world only to wait for a future, better world. I tend to think that Plato himself did not hold this belief since for him philosophy was preparation for death and dying. The last part, dying, suggests an activity of every moment in which the self disappears in order to make place to something that is inside of me. But this is not about Plato, so let me not get into details. Platonism, though, with clearly separated two worlds, suggests that we live in this world with a view towards the other, completely future world. Thus, one often hears people say that the only genuine life is the one after the biological death. In Orthodoxy, life on this earth, here and now, is important for any future life because we live here in whatever kingdom we may be living in the future. Christ has not said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is coming,” but rather “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17); it is ready to be grasped. The Kingdom is at hand, close to us, not temporally, but near us, in our presence, in our midst; it is graspable now. As Fr. Arsenie Boca, a Romanian priest who, as many others, suffered communist persecution, used to say, “do not expect to live, after death, in a different world than the one in which you have lived during life.” This emphasis on the Kingdom present here, emphasis that was witnessed throughout Christendom at its beginning, can be seen in the way in which the Liturgy begins, with the priest’s greeting of the kingdom: Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (see Fr. Alexander Schmemann). The coming together of the people in Liturgy takes place in the Kingdom.
Second, the East is not interested in arguments for God’s existence. Anselm’s or Aquinas’ fine arguments would be considered, perhaps, nice intellectual endeavors, but not really theological pursuits (and I always enjoy discussing Anselm from a philosophical perspective). In the East, the only argument for God’s existence is the life of a good human being. One lives one’s life such that the presence of God cannot be denied. In fact, if you think about the problem of evil as it is approached in one of the most famous Orthodox writers, Fyodor Dostoevsky, even Ivan, one of the Karamazov Brothers, does not say that the amount of evil in the world shows that God does not exist, but rather that if God created such a world he respectfully returns the ticket. I take this as claiming something along these lines: “My dear God, be that as it may, I don’t want to do anything with Your world.” I take it that Dostoevsky’s point is that any theodicy is already doomed because it connects suffering to a possible reward in the afterlife, and from here two problems ensue. One, we justify suffering and so we give it being. Two, we posit two separate different worlds, and we return to Platonism. Such a view is presented in the novel by Ivan, the one who loves humanity in the abstract. There is another lover of humanity in the abstract: Satan. Both of them reject the world as means of communion between people, on the one hand, and between people and good, on the other, while claiming that they refuse this world in the name of their love for humanity.
Third, let me quote Vladimir Lossky who says that Orthodoxy “is not limited by any particular type of culture, by the legacy of any civilization (Hellenistic or otherwise), or by strictly eastern cultural forms… What have Hellenism and Russian culture in common…? Orthodoxy has been the leaven in too many different cultures to be itself considered a cultural form of eastern Christianity. The forms are different; the faith is one” (Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church 17). I wanted to mention this third final point because it gives an idea about communion in difference, one of the features of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Church does not have a head among the Bishops; it recognizes no Pope as the head of the Church. The only head the Orthodox Church is Christ. While one has different approaches in manifesting faith (and if you go to a Greek, a Romanian, an Antiochian, or a Russian church, you will perceive differences), the communion remains valid. A theologian (and I don’t remember who) said once that the loaf of bread is given to the church, then it is divided in pieces to be used for communion, but only to become one again in the coming together of the people in communion.