From Reason to Truth to Mystery: An Odyssey to Orthodoxy

By John W. Oliver

Some days ago an off-the-cuff reference to myself as a former Evangelical Friend caused a slight stir. Chuck Fager said, “You must do an article.” Jerry Frost (retiring Director of the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College) said, “We must talk.” This is to respond to these kind invitations.

At first blush, Quakers and Eastern Orthodox seem to have little in common. Yet here, as in other matters, I was light years behind Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann who, placed at a conference with representatives of liturgical traditions, said “Oh no. Orthodox belong next to the Friends.”

My spiritual trek includes a Presbyterian focus on reason, a Quaker emphasis on “speaking truth,” and an Orthodox vision where reason and truth were wed, but not supplanted, in mystery and glory.


Growing up as a Scotch-Irish Presbyterian, I was taught the rational faith of John Calvin by mother and an aunt. Covenanters follow the Westminster Catechism and Scripture. The former is logical, internally consistent. It begins with “What is the chief end of man?” from which follows “What do the Scriptures principally teach?” It focuses on the Ten Commandments, which teach reverence for God and how to live with others.

Reason reinforced faith. With other historians in his era, my father believed in liberal arts, personal integrity, and democratic values. He did ground-breaking work at the University of Pittsburgh in the history of American technology, a field of research that confirmed his faith in progress. In addition, he affirmed mother’s clear ethical standards: sexual purity, no alcohol or profanity, truth telling, and Sabbath observance. In this home, faith and reason danced together.

As a boy, important history was Western history, with a bright new world being shaped by technology, freedom, and reason: I saw Catholic oppression and superstition replaced by the recovery of Classical civilization in the Renaissance. Religious freedom, I believed, came with the Reformation, modern science, empiricism, and reason with the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, material progress with the Industrial Revolution, and democracy with the American Revolution. Education brought enlightenment. The Commandments taught how to live. With Bible reading, prayer, and the pledge of allegiance in my public school, it was a seamless whole: a simpatico relationship between faith and learning, between mother’s postmillennialism and father’s progressive, if less religious, world view.

A darker side appeared in World War II. I loved songs that mixed war, patriotism, and religion. In my imagination, I shot down planes and bombed cities. Christianity. Freedom. Democracy. Together these made a heroic, right way to live.

Worse yet, I secretly wondered why killing must stop with foreign enemies? Would it not be better if no children were born to handicapped or under-gifted parents? This was not vicious blood lust, but idealism born of good intentions, a scion of reason coupled with progress, uninformed by ancient Christian notions of the sacredness of life. It seemed to serve a higher “good”: a tough-minded utilitarianism or Social Darwinism, not good as presented by the Beatitudes.

A better side of this reasonable faith encouraged compassion, the stage for which was set by the contrast between my upper middle class neighborhood and the poor district around our church. As a pre-teen, I accepted the logic of Calvinist Christianity. As a teen, I put it to the test.

The test came from wanting to bring peers into God’s kingdom. My own neighbors went to church. But the poor around our church had little contact with religion. We believed God could save them from ugly surroundings, or better yet, transform their neighborhood into a place of happiness and beauty. The solution, we believed, lay in getting youth to a summer camp where they could learn about a higher purpose for life. But we had no camp, or money to rent or buy one. The answer, it seemed, was to build one.

Impractical? Not if, as the catechism taught, God has all-power, and answers prayer. One summer in the mid-1940’s a few teens met to pray for a camp. Afterwards, a girl recalled a minister with a farm who, she had heard, wanted to establish a camp. We asked to visit him. Not knowing our purpose, he agreed. When we asked permission to build a camp on his farm, he replied, “I’ve prayed for this for years.”

We prayed again. Within a week, a beggar with one leg who had never been to the church slipped several hundred dollars under the door, with a note asking that it be used for a worthy purpose. The elders gave the money to our camp

Again we prayed. Within a week, a man with a saw mill stopped by the farm to ask about cutting timber. Learning of our plans, he offered us wood for the price of cutting. Father then contacted the Director of The Pittsburgh Foundation. With his help, and other donations, the camp was built. In our eyes, faith and reason were confirmed by experience. As for the camp, our church ran it for a few years before another group took charge. The neighborhood was not changed, but one minister and one seminary professor came from this neighborhood.

Later, at our church college, my faith was further grounded by a professor who required history majors to write a paper on “The Resurrection of Christ.” We were to write as critical historians, not believing Christians. This research convinced me that Jesus was a historical figure, crucified and buried in Jerusalem in the first century AD. The question then became, “What happened to the body?” Try as I would, I found no alternate scenario to explain its disappearance, apart from divine intervention: something not unreasonable to one whose experience with the camp had not closed the option of transcendence.

In spite of this, my faith fell away in graduate school, where most reasonable people I knew did not embrace Christianity. Formerly, my faith had been confirmed by my study of history. Now historians I respected had no room for supernaturalism in their world view. Finally, after emotional pleas from a fundamentalist minister (I concluded I had to attend church while away from home, as mother would surely ask), I knelt one night in a dormitory at Duke University to pose four questions to God. After each, I flipped the Bible open in hope that the first verse I saw would speak to my confusion.

It did. My first question had to do with hell. The verse: “Shall he that contendeth with the Almighty instruct him? He who reproves God, let him answer it” A response, it seemed, if not an answer. I was, I thought, out of my league. My second query had to do with how to reconcile the angry God of the Old Testament with Jesus. The verse: “His anger lasts a moment, His favor all our days.” I remembered Christ raging in the temple. It struck me that love and wrath are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin.

The next evening I knelt at an altar to “surrender my life to Christ,” perhaps the most reluctant convert in North Carolina. Yet, after leaving the church, I was, as it were, struck by a bolt of pure joy. I raced back to the campus, too overcome, or insecure, to share the news with anyone. Once again, I had encountered something coincidental, or transcendent.

Later, after reading an article in His magazine on the authority of Jesus Christ, I settled in my mind whether to regard the Bible as authoritative for faith and doctrine, or as a fallible book. While I continue to be a simple historian, not a Biblical scholar, it seemed that the Jesus of the New Testament accepted the authority of the Old Testament. It struck me that, if Christ is God, my place is to bow to his authority. Even though I then thought historical scholarship to be more a science than an art, I was prepared to recognize this scholarship could never be the sine qua non, not if Christ is Lord. At the same time, my simple faith made me vulnerable to proof-texting. I memorized verses to assure others they were saved, inviting them to trust God’s word, not emotions. I embraced a narrow logical faith, if in large part uninformed by the grand sweep of Christian theology and history.

In spite of limitations, whether from Presbyterian theology or simply from me, these roots offered glimpses of mystery: Mystery appeared in reverence for God. Never – never! – take the Creator’s “name in vain.” Worship, I was told, has nothing to do with entertainment. We worship because God commands it, and because when we love we want to be with the beloved. Mystery appeared in divine imagery: the glow on Moses’s face after a faint glimpse of God on Sinai and in the tabernacle, seraphim with covered faces circling God’s throne while chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory.” A creation filled with glory. A world wounded by sin, perhaps more precious because of suffering. Pieces of wonder, but somehow they didn’t quite fit together.


In 1966 I came to teach history at Malone College, where I was reshaped by two influences. The first was contact with Evangelical Quakers, and after that with Quaker history. The second was a growing realization of the need for a higher ethic.

In my first days at the college, the war in Vietnam was heating up. The chair of my department, a friend from graduate school, was noted for befriending African-Americans, but he then supported the war. He later told me, “You were the first person I ever heard speak against the war at Malone.” A good man, I am happy to add that he later became active in peace studies at a major university.

The fiercest hawks I knew at Malone were an Evangelical Friend, his anti-communism fueled by a commitment to foreign missions, and a fundamentalist minister steeped in nationalism. At the same time, my initial opposition to this war was not rooted in reverence for life, but in anti-Catholicism. When Catholic hierarchs supported the war, I became skeptical. Yet, if my motives were tainted, I at least began to reflect on the horror of war. In 1964 I broke with my Republican roots to support Johnson, who seemed less militant than Goldwater. In 1968 I supported McCarthy and Kennedy, and worked passionately in 1972 on the local level to elect McGovern. Vietnam was the first time I began to think about the nature and importance of human life.

In the 1980’s I began to teach Quaker history and joined the Evangelical Friends Church. Dipping into Quaker history, I was struck by the commitment to “speak truth.” I also began to notice how euphemisms skewed our thinking, and how whoever controls the language or frames the question shapes our minds. Speaking truth seemed good not only for the soul, but also for the mind.

My interest in Quaker history led me to Walter and Emma Malone, the founders of our college, who I discovered had opposed all killing. Their consistency led me to wonder why evangelicals who speak of the “sacredness” of unborn life see war as necessary to serve Christ’s kingdom? “Sacredness of life” – words that resonated with the founders in regard to war, capital punishment, and abortion – did not compute with Evangelical Quakers persuaded by the logic of war. When a chapel speaker justified killing Vietnamese and Iraqis because they do not believe in “the sacredness of life,” I wondered how this would have stunned the Malones. They saw Christ in every human being, and complained that Japanese and Russians “made in the image of God” were being killed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. If all life is sacred, I wondered why we fail to “speak [this] truth” about war? Were evangelicals more attuned to modern thought than to Christian mystery, to the logic of war than to Christ in others?

If evangelicals lack consistent reverence for life, the same seems true of liberals. Liberal Friends oppose war, but euphemistically support “choice” [to kill]. Or, I was told by a kind Friend, “Among liberal Friends, when non-violence competes with feminism, feminism wins.” “Speaking truth,” it seemed, should require these Friends to say exactly what they mean when they speak of “choice.” “Choice” has nothing to do with vouchers, or freedom to select vanilla or chocolate. “Choice” means choice to kill.

In short, I saw evangelical and liberal Friends – as with me in my younger years – more attuned to pragmatism or utilitarianism than to the mystery. As a boy, the mystery – God in enemies, even in all creation – never occurred to me. The only time I suspected God to be present in a beggar was when one of these gave us money to build a camp.

A second influence reshaping me at Malone was a growing sense of our urgent need for a higher ethic, especially in the atomic age. This was facilitated by the pro-life movement, and by readings and reflections on history.

I embraced “pro-life” in the later 1970s’s and early 1980’s, finding support from Evangelicals for Social Action and Sojourners magazine. The Catholic sources for this movement led me to patristics, and to the brink of mystery. God in an unborn child? Old, if new for me, meanings of: “incarnation” swept my consciousness. I had learned to revere God’s name as a boy. But God incarnate in every person? If so, I began to see, if only dimly, that the preciousness of each life must transcend reason. The issue was yielding to Christ, as earlier when I was struck by what Christ said about the authority of the Old Testament. As with anti-war, this too did not sit well with some administrators, especially those with different ideas about “a woman’s right to choose.”

Our need to discover a new – or rediscover an old – way of thinking arises out of the unprecedented difference between our age and every previous era. It was father’s History of American Technology (1954) that helped me see technology as the principal shaper of the modern world.

Western, especially American, technology, father taught me, is on a fast track. Or, as Alvin Toffler wrote in Future Shock, “If the last 50,000 years of man’s existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately 62 years each, . . . the vast majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 800th, lifetime.”

This is no less true of technologies of death. Churchill was especially perceptive when he commented at the advent of the Atomic Age, “What was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This atomic bomb is the second coming in wrath!”

The Atomic Age represents a more radical change than earlier transitions from the Stone to the Bronze to the Iron Age. It invites us to look for different categories, different ways of thinking, to step outside boxes represented by modern and post- modern thought, especially as this has to do with ethics.

In this age, for the first time in history, the double standard that treats the powerful (nuclear powers) one way and the weak (non-nuclear states) another way is obsolete. This is because, with technology on a fast track, the weak may one day be able to retaliate in kind. In the future, the weak may no longer be weak.

We may anticipate three things:

  1. Our technology can now destroy all human life. It will never go away. We cannot forget it is possible to make nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
  2. In the shorter ranger, information about technologies of death is likely to proliferate. Billionaires, even organized crime, may one day acquire weapons of mass destruction. It is difficult to halt the transmission of knowledge.
  3. In the longer range, future nuclear, biological and chemical weapons promise to make present technologies of death obsolete, if not primitive. It is difficult to stop the progress of science and technology.

Given these clear, simple realities, why is it so hard to promote nonviolence? Why does opposition to war by many in peace movements seem a knee-jerk reaction rather than a deeply rooted philosophy of life? Do many in the anti-abortion movement shift gears when they talk about capital punishment and war?

We have focused on good things, especially personal freedom and justice. It would be a terrible mistake to abandon these ideals. But even good values, if not kept in their proper place, invite disaster. If our chief commitment is to freedom, those who support killing will carry the day, whether with war or abortion. But what if all life is sacred? Do we have the right focus to pursue a higher ethic? The right question?

I am indebted to evangelical Friends, and to good friends at the college. But, apart from the founders, I found no inexorable vision of glory to withstand previously unimagined technologies of death.


After a minister declared Friends “support the president” in the 1991 Gulf War, I began to attend an Orthodox Church, drawn by liturgy and a “hireling priest,” a former Episcopalian who converted to Orthodoxy after leaving the College of the South at Sewannee, Tennessee. This was my first exposure to a liturgy that retains forms and much of the content of early Christian worship. My son, now studying to be a priest, joined first. Marge, my wife, whose Quaker roots go back to 1660, was second. A daughter joined next. I was fourth. Another daughter came later. My first daughter, Kim Pandorf, and her family now attend an Orthodox Church in Tampa.

I came looking for truth. Writing a chapter on the history of the college for Cradles of Conscience: Ohio’s Independent Colleges and Universities (2003) and for a forthcoming book on Quaker colleges, I was impressed by how much Ohio’s evangelical Quakers had changed in the later twentieth century. Thinking about killing had changed, with little or no reference to Quaker tradition or history. Even the “Christian world view” we talked about at the college had undergone major revisions, dropping or de-emphasizing some nationalistic and capitalistic baggage from the early and (with some) mid-1960’s, but still far removed from the Christian mind of Francis of Assisi or John Chrysostom. There was no catechism to call us to account. Rules by church and college for how to live – having to do with war, movies, and dancing – changed as a broader evangelicalism supplanted “holiness” theology, church and college in sync with one another, with little, if any, effort to cite Biblical texts to support or oppose change. The questions were: “What is being done at other Christian colleges?” “What is wanted by the constituency, Christian or secular?” It is one thing to put out to sea. It is quite another to have no fixed compass, whether Scripture, book of discipline, or stable theology, to direct where to go. Tactics change. But truth?

After I became Orthodox, as if in confirmation of this decision, other evangelical Friends underwent similar treks to this ancient worship. But, was this a mere local phenomenon, perhaps induced by the water in northeast Ohio? After my spiritual odyssey, I learned about the Orthodox Peace Fellowship (, led by Jim and Nancy Forest. Jim, while International Secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, had been a Friend. A peacemaker, he explores in Orthodoxy a vision for non-violence that embraces all human life.

In 1998 I joined six others to establish a North American chapter of OPF (Orthodox Peace Fellowship in North America.). Talking around a table in Dayton, Ohio, it popped up that every one of us had at one time been a Friend: Conservative, Evangelical, FGC, and FUM. Our journeys had been remarkably the same. We had looked for a fuller vision of the sacred, experienced in worship, and carried from there to all creation. (My son’s writings on the sacred character of the creation appear in Touchstone magazine.)

As a convert, this vision came to include three things. The first has to do with incarnation, the second with icons, the third with liturgy and the Eucharist.

As an evangelical, I believed God is incarnate in Christ. As Orthodox, I see the holy God of Scripture incarnate everywhere and in everyone. If “the American story” is the “John Wayne story” – good guys vs. bad guys, the bad needing to be killed – as an Orthodox Christian it can no longer be my story. Good and bad are incarnate in me. More than that, the liturgy requires me to say, “Christ came into the world to save [not kill] sinners, of whom I am first.” We are to convert, not kill, enemies. My war is with the enemy within me, the chief of sinners.

The liturgy, with the Eucharist , may be the most wondrous of all. In the liturgy I plead over and over for mercy. After this, how can I demand justice – not mercy – for another? The mystery of the Eucharist cannot be neatly defined as transubstantiation or consubstantiation. It is, well, mystery, to be adored, not defined. Christ’s body and blood in each communicant in the most intimate possible way will appear obscene to some, but it is capable of being understood by every lover.

Finally, it is only fair to note that this vision is not to be confused with ugly Orthodox realities: phyletism (religious nationalism), a readiness to deny religious freedom to others, ethnic cleansing, and tainting legitimate authority with pride and arrogance. A loving priest or hierarch offers guidance in times of crisis, with wisdom, love, and encouragement. But power can change some personalities for the worse, or attract persons seeking power. Orthodoxy can expect to be influenced by American culture, as it has already been influenced by cultures in other lands. While Orthodoxy does not welcome revision or change, it is always relevant to reexamine Scripture, Tradition (Orthodox distinguish between “Tradition” and “tradition”), canons and councils for wisdom, guidance, and correction.

I also do not find the argument of some Orthodox that war is “a necessary evil” any better than the “just war” view: not when these whisper “necessary” and shout “evil” in times of peace, then, in times of war, reverse the volume. Nevertheless, I am helped by Fr. Stanley Harakas, whose “Orthodox motif” for looking at war insists that “peace in its multifarious dimensions, was central to the ecclesial, patristic, canonical, and ethical concerns of [historic] Orthodoxy.” I am also helped by hesychast (inner silence) spirituality that calls for war only within me, and refuses to judge others, even enemies. The “Jesus prayer:” (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) asks only for mercy. Hesychasts see all creation as holy.

Perhaps I have followed a path foreseen by T.S. Eliot, who said “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, And know the place for the first time.” It is a place for reason and “speaking truth.” But now I find consummation in mystery, glory, and wonder. Seeing you I can only babble “holy, holy, holy.” Friends, Enemies. Criminals. The unborn. All are holy.

Incarnation. Icons. Eucharist. Liturgy. Hesychast spirituality. These are windows to something beyond categories that shape Western minds. These vistas permit me to step outside the box, to see a world that transcends categories that once dominated my thinking. In this world, neither gender nor nationalism trump non-violence. Questions of “just” or “necessary” war fall away. My calling is to bring brothers and sisters to mercy, not to justice.

Finally, will this vision make us irrelevant? Will it disengage us from the modern dialogue? Or is this vision of glory our sole hope, a shift in thinking that makes killing unthinkable?

Indeed, it may disengage us from the present dialogue. But, as Robert Skotheim notes in The Historian and the Climate of Opinion, our understanding of American history changed in the twentieth century in ways that “coincided with alternations in the prevailing climate of opinion.” The shift from progressive to consensus to New Left did not occur because historians came up with better answers to old questions. Rather each succeeding school posed, researched, and answered its own questions about the past. As Louis Hartz remarked, the best way to refute someone is “to substitute new fundamental categories for his own, so that you are simply pursuing a different path.”

Mystery and holiness change the categories. They transform how we see every other human being. Is this the radical revisionism we need for an age when, as Auden said, our choice is to love one another or die?

Mystery opens our eyes to wonder, to cherish what is holy. John Chrysostom said:

“Do you wish to honor the Body of the Savior? Do not despise it when it is naked. Do not honor it in church with silk vestments while outside it is naked and numb with cold. He who said, ‘This is my body,’ and made it so by his word, is the same who said, ‘You saw me hungry and you gave me no food. As you did it not to the least of these, you did it not to me.’ Honor him then by sharing your property with the poor, for what God needs is not golden chalices but golden souls.”

Christ incarnate in the Eucharist: so sacred to early Christians that only believers were permitted to be present at this holy consummation, a mystery mirrored in the unity of the Trinity, or the physical/spiritual consummation of oneness between male and female, or the connectedness that comes from sharing the Spirit of God?

What is it about God that seraphim sense, but dare not see, that shrinks language to “Holy, holy, holy. . . .”? Is it a vision akin to what Walter and Emma Malone saw that led them to shout “Glory. Glory. Glory.” Is this vision of incarnate glory needed to rightly see, and save, the earth? Do we dare set our minds to think about and write about the presence of this vision in history and theology? Or, if this is inadequate, what am I missing?

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