Atheists often make much of the disagreement that exists between different branches of Christianity. Believers usually respond by marginalizing these disagreements as peripheral and unimportant. So, how big are these differences really?
In this post, I’ll take a look at the first major split in the Christian tradition. This split, called the “Great Schism”, gave birth to the early Catholic and Orthodox churches. I must say I find considerable mirth in such grandiose terms as the “Great Schism” and the “Great Disappointment“, as if things like disagreements and dismay have never been greater as on these occasions.
Here are some of the main differences between Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy:
1. Perhaps the biggest difference is the Catholic church’s reliance on rational, philosophical arguments as a means of establishing truths about God (excuse my eyes watering at the thought). The Eastern Orthodox view is that revelation is more important: the relationship with God is mystical, and therefore inaccessible to logical argumentation. It’s not immediately clear, however, what conclusions regarding God’s nature the two churches have arrived at through their different approaches (this is code for “I need to do more research”). Apparently the mystical approach of the Orthodox Church allows it to “perceive depths of meaning in the biblical writings that escape a purely scientific or empirical approach to interpretation” (this sounds like code for “they just make shit up”).
One of the practical consequences of the rational/mystical split is that the Catholic practice of Christianity is more institutionalized and academic, while the Orthodox approach is ascetic and, supposedly, therapeutic.
2. Another, less important, difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy lies in the concept of original sin, which the Orthodox church tends to be a little more positive about, denying the Catholic idea that all people are totally depraved (this is the church’s term, not mine – see Total Depravity).
3. Finally, a key difference between the two churches is a very angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin-type issue regarding where faith comes from. Catholics believe that faith is given by the grace of God, whereas Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that faith is chosen by free will. Yawn!
My overall impression, from the bit of research I’ve done, is that the specific theological differences between Catholicism and Orthodoxy are not that large. Rather, the approach to practicing these religions is what jumps out as the central difference. The Orthodox church was obviously influenced by other eastern religious practices, while the Catholic church was caught up in analytical western thinking (which, unfortunately, it has only embraced in a highly selective fashion).