For some coming to Orthodox Christianity, the conversion is a jolting experience where the difference between one’s former way of life and the Orthodox way of life becomes suddenly clear and is a stark contrast. For such converts, and for many people who were born into Orthodoxy and have never been anything else, Orthodoxy is simply true, its rituals and prayers give spiritual strength, and not much thought is given to non-Orthodox religious experiences. There are others, however, who have been religious or spiritual their entire life, and for whom Orthodoxy is the culmination of a gradual approach towards the fullness of faith.
When Orthodoxy is the last step in a long journey of gradually turning to God, the Orthodox Church’s insistence on being the one, true Church often causes one to ponder what then to make of previous spiritual experiences. Some lifelong Orthodox, not having had experience outside the Church, see spiritual non-Orthodox and often wonder if their spirituality is of the same substance as the Orthodox way.
Those of us growing up in Western Europe or America are now trained to be relativists; each culture, belief, and way of life is seen as a choice, and the logical outcome of our rights and freedom. Orthodoxy then presents itself as the true faith, and this seems rather medieval at first glace due to our upbringing. Yet relativism is an empty philosophy which in the end has not served modern man as much as he assumed it would. The belief that all religions, cultures, and practices are equal often leaves man with an empty feeling, or in a state of constant wandering. The fact that there is an alternative, a faith which claims it is the Truth, and can provide evidence that it has remained consistent since its founding by the Lord Jesus Himself two thousand years ago, is a welcome alternative to those burnt out by this empty world-view.
The average Protestant is a also a quasi-relativist by virtue of following the invisible Church theory, whereby all true believers in the Lord are part of His body, which exists wherever His name is glorified. In practice, this means that there are true Christians in various denominations, all of which disagree with one another on many points. Appeals to Billy Graham, missionaries dying for Christ in distant lands, C.S. Lewis, and charismatic faith healings almost invariably follow. In the same way, Roman Catholics will also bring forth their many saints and miracles as testimony.
We cannot remove foreign influences such as relativism so easily, however; while intellectually we come to accept the truth of the Orthodox Church, we wonder about our emotions, our feelings, and our own unique experiences. This leads us to the question: if Orthodoxy is the true faith, then what about miracles and experiences that happen in other Churches, and may have even happened to us? There are three broad possibilities as to what these experiences could be: a creation of our own minds; the work of God preparing us to receive Orthodoxy; and demonic deception.
Most experiences we have are subjective, especially religious phenomena. Mass hysteria and group suggestion can also play a role, such that groups of people can experience something together by the power of suggestion. Our past experiences, such as feelings of intense love, awe, having a powerful dream, experiencing déjà vu, and the like can often be explained with rational explanations. Christians should be careful not to ascribe supernatural origins to every feeling and thought.
Another possibility is of course that the experience did come from God. A sinner who prays in an Evangelical Church for forgiveness and accepts Christ, and then turns his life around, quite possibly did have an experience of God’s love and forgiveness despite the venue (although this must be compared to the often unmentioned revolving door—the high turnaround in many Churches where people fall away from fervor, often getting “saved” again in another Church). God is well aware that the Orthodox Church is not everywhere, and that not all people will have equal access to it at all stages of life. For some, God may allow them to draw closer to Him, and their experiences in other Churches may be part of His will. However, this must always be seen as a condescension, and not as a normal course of affairs. In other words, the Holy Spirit, who is “everywhere present and fill[s] all things” may come to someone outside the Church in order to open them up to receive the fullness of truth later. But we must also recognize that God can act in any way He wills in any place and any time.
The final possibility is that the experience is demonic. This is most visible in the extremes, when we see televangelists preaching the “Word of Faith” gospel of material richness, or extreme Charismatics rolling about on the floor writhing in ecstasy. Such blatantly anti-Christian activities are not from God. While they could be a power of the imagination, when one gets into the area of speaking in tongues and prophecy, a demonic element is often present and leads such people further and further away from the historic Church.
This leads us to the question of measuring such experiences. Is there a way one can know which of the above options any given experience was? Is it even profitable to do so? The Orthodox response might be that it is difficult to know, and is probably not profitable to investigate. A big clue though would be the outcome; as a result of any given experience, did the person come closer to God and His Church, or slip further away? Jonathan Edwards, the famous New England preacher, had ecstatic experiences which led him to become a Calvinist. Many Mormons cite a “burning in the bosom” as proof of the Book of Mormon.
For Orthodox, however, religious experiences before conversion were often steps on the path that ultimately lead them to fulfillment—and what they experienced in Orthodoxy goes far beyond the experiences of the past. Orthodoxy builds on and completes prior experiences which while good were steps, not the end in themselves. By seeing where the person ended up—in or outside the Church—and if they died outside the Church by judging whether they came closer to it in their life (for instance from paganism to Evangelicalism) are good indicators, but again are highly subjective. It is best to leave such uncertainties to God, who is a just and merciful judge.
Orthodox spiritual experiences are never separated from the True doctrine; if we are to have a relationship with Christ, we must know Him, and that means holding firm to the teachings about Him. These teachings have only been fully maintained inside the visible Church He left, which is the Orthodox Christian Church. It is within the body of believers that spiritual experiences can be shared and evaluated, especially under the guidance of a spiritual father. When an Orthodox Christian sees spiritual experiences occurring outside the bounds of the visible Church, he can appreciate God’s boundless love for all mankind, and he should pray that it is God’s grace moving inside the heart of the person to bring him to Orthodoxy. We may be able to point to prior events in our lives as the time when God moved us closer to Orthodoxy, but we must always be aware of the other possibilities for such experiences and remain vigilant. Experiences often add a feeling of confirmation to our beliefs, but we must be cautious not to base our beliefs solely off of our subjective experiences.