This morning I was reflecting on the decided coolness that some Christians around here seem to display towards Orthodoxy. While this is no doubt partly because we are really pretty unknown, I suspect that there is also more going on. On the one hand, there are Evangelicals I know who I suspect regard us as some sort of weird sect, or else as a more exotic version of Catholicism which, for some of them, is probably hardly any better. But there are also, on the other hand, more liberal Protestants, Anglicans and Catholics, who show more interest in the Church, being fascinated by the icons, music, Liturgy and so on, until, well, until we give offence. The discovery that we do not accept “intercommunion,” or believe that all religious expressions are of equal validity, or buy into an agenda of “inclusivity,” seems to lead – understandably enough if one is committed to such things – to a coolness even if this is not expressed as an outright rejection.
Anyway, I as I was washing the bath this morning I found myself thinking that Orthodox Christianity does indeed go “against the grain” of many contemporary cultural assumptions. However, no sooner had I voiced that phrase than I caught myself. While it is an expression that I have used before, I had never really considered where it came from until now. And, as a bookbinder who had only yesterday emailed a prospective client explaining the importance of grain direction, I really ought to know. And, as I reflected on this, I realised that it is actually a misconception to say that Orthodox Christianity goes “against the grain” or that it can ever be a good thing to go “against the grain.”
This is an expression that originates in the grain direction of paper. If you take a sheet of paper and bend it to fold it, you will notice that it folds more easily in one direction than the other (usually in the length with a sheet of A4 paper). When one is binding a book, it is very important that the paper is folded and glued “with the grain” and that the board for the covers and all other paper used should likewise run in the same direction. If this does not happen one gets friction between the different elements of the book, one may get warping and, quite simply, the finished product does not open and read as easily. (Regrettably publishers of many commercially bound books ignore this in the name of economy, but if you wonder why some books are not as supple to open as others, this could be why).
Anyway, reflecting on this, I realised that the Christian vision, while it may go “against the grain” of certain contemporary cultural assumptions – and, indeed, of the dominant assumptions of any era – does not go “against the grain” of our human nature, and of our deepest human identity. For we are created “with the grain,” in harmony with the grain direction of the universe, for we are created in the image and likeness of God. While that image has been distorted and marred due to sin, it is still our deepest identity and salvation in a Christian perspective is not only to recognise that image, but also to recover the likeness that has been lost by sin.
In this context, the life of the Church is there to form us – and re-form us – in the right direction, not simply in order to adapt us to a standard outside of ourselves, but because this is the direction of our own deepest nature. It is to ensure that we are in harmony with those to whom we are attached in a greater whole, to re-orientate us to the true reality in the universe. In this context, to try and go “against the grain,” to use the bookbinding analogy, is asking for trouble, not simply because it is being rebellious, but because it is inattentive to our own deepest identity.