Review: Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Revised & Expanded edition)

I first encountered Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” project through his podcast series on the Ancient Faith website. Orthodox Christianity was new to me at the time, and Fr. Damick’s podcast seemed like an ideal introductory resource. It was informative and helpful, but I was disappointed by the polemical tone and oversimplifications I perceived in his descriptions of Roman Catholicism. Therefore, I was pleased to read in the preface to the new edition of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy that he had made a concentrated effort to avoid unnecessary polemics and to learn about the various faith traditions discussed from the adherents in these respective traditions. Fr. Damick’s commendable effort is seen throughout the book in quotations from source materials relevant to each respective group being considered and his ability to find common ground with even religious groups that have few apparent similarities to Orthodox Christianity.

The book begins by stating both the motivation for its creation and the position of the author. Truth, Fr. Damick tells us, is as central a foundation for religious and spiritual considerations as it is in disciplines like science and history. It is important for Orthodox Christians to hold this in mind as they learn about and engage other faith traditions, especially in light of ever more popular relativist and consumerist views of spirituality that view one’s denominational choice in the same category as their entertainment or transportation preferences.

Following a helpful glossary of the heresies Christianity encountered in its early history, chapters are arranged by their similarity and developmental proximity to Orthodox Christianity, beginning with Roman Catholicism and ending with a section on non-Christian religions. For the most part, these chapters accomplish Fr. Damick’s stated intention: to provide an introductory overview of the beliefs of non-Orthodox faith traditions and a comparative analysis of how each of these respective traditions are similar and dissimilar to Orthodox Christianity.

My favorite section is the epilogue, in which Fr. Damick turns his attention to the conversational habits of many (or at least the loudest) within his own Orthodox Christian tradition. He observes that modern dialogue between Orthodox Christians and others, especially on the internet, is often too polemical and unproductive and emphasizes the need for a loving evangelism that seeks to establish common ground and fellowship rather than exclusivism and division. He is especially critical of those who condemn ecumenical dialogue in all of its forms and those who are quick to label those with whom they disagree as heretics.

Because Fr. Damick’s survey of religions extends far beyond my own areas of competency, I cannot speak to the accuracy of most of the book’s chapters; however, I am familiar with Roman Catholicism and Mormonism which allowed me to assess the sections relevant to these faith groups with more scrutiny. In the section on Roman Catholicism, Fr. Damick occasionally overstates the differences between it and the Orthodox tradition. Following other prominent Orthodox Christian thinkers like Vladimir Lossky, Fr. Damick has a tendency to juxtaposes rational West with experiential, mystical East. However, as is made evident in the works of Orthodox thinkers like Fr. Georges Florovsky, Fr. Dimitru Staniloae, and more recently Fr. Andrew Louth, the late Fr. Matthew Baker, and Marcus Plested has shown, this juxtaposition does not do justice to the historical reality. To Fr. Andrew’s credit, he does emphasize that one ought not to take this comparison too far, yet  he still reminds the reader at several points of Roman Catholicism’s injurious rational approach and legalism.

Fr. Damick’s brief section on Mormonism is surprisingly fair, especially in light of most outside descriptions of the tradition. It is evident from this brief section that he likely consulted resources that are true to Mormon history and beliefs. However, on at least one occasion he implies that a somewhat common Mormon belief (that the Virgin Mary was physically impregnated by God the Father) is official teaching. In Fr. Damick’s defense, though, it is often difficult to distinguish official Mormon teaching from popular belief because Mormons do not have well-defined creedal statements.

Beyond these section-specific criticisms, I think that the book is still too polemical at points, though I commend Fr. Damick for his frequent efforts to highlight the common ground between Orthodox Christianity and other faith traditions. I especially appreciate his focus on Orthodox beliefs that are often overlooked, such as the need for compassion, and a respect for animals and the environment. There are also instances where Fr. Damick establishes his views as the Orthodox position on matters that have long been, and are still debated within the Orthodox tradition, such as the place Scholastic philosophy and apokatastasis have in the Church.

As a note of personal preference, I believe the book would have been more valuable to the dialogue if it had focused more on the ideological trends throughout the history of Christendom rather than the historical events and players themselves. For instance, central to the Reformation was the adoption of Nominalism in opposition to the Scholastic tradition that dominated both the Catholic Church and its universities, yet there is no mention of this pivotal change. Furthermore, Fr. Damick frames modern ideological conflicts in terms of truth vs. relativism, yet as philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor have convincingly argued, the issue often isn’t about whether or not one or more parties accepts truth or not, but about how one is able to determine it. That said, ideological considerations are not completely absent from Fr. Damick’s surveys, and his summaries are executed with care and consideration.

I agree with Fr. Damick’s estimation that this book will be informative for Orthodox Christians looking for an introductory survey of many different faith groups and how Orthodox Christian beliefs are different from those of other faith traditions. However, I can’t speak to the accuracy of all its sections and would recommend checking the accuracy against the self-understanding of each faith group considered in Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy.

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