'O' is for the Orthodox Way and the Quaker Way


On the face of it the spirituality of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Quakerism would appear to be entirely incompatible; one values outward liturgy and the veneration of icons whereas the other rejects all outward ceremony and imagery. But are these two traditions really as far apart as they at first appear? This posting will seek to address this question by exploring a number of aspects of the Orthodox way that share commonalities with traditional Quaker understandings. Might this prompt us to explore dialogue and greater mutual understanding as a way of bringing spiritual enrichment to both groups?


The main purpose of this posting is to indicate the ways in which Eastern Orthodoxy and Quakerism share a number of similar theological and spiritual understandings. However, it is clear that there is a range of quite significant differences dividing the two traditions that should not be ignored. In terms of the Eastern Orthodox Church these include:

·         Churches with strong national or even nationalist identities.
·         Hierarchical Church structures
·         An ordained male priesthood
·         An apparently firm distinction between laity and the priesthood/monastics
·         The outward ritual of the Holy Liturgy
·         The outward sacraments
·         The ecclesiastical year regulated by a liturgical calendar
·         Elaborate church architecture
·         The importance of physical images and symbolism
·         Very firmly defined boundaries of acceptable doctrine


Despite the many significant differences listed above, there are also a surprising number of areas of Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality that are reflected to some degree within traditional Quaker faith and practice. These are set out below.

Basic Foundations

1. Faith as Experience and Relationship

The Orthodox way is strongly experiential in orientation, based on a relationship of divine intimacy. Such experience is especially focused on the practice of prayer and worship (Louth 2013, p.xx). Orthodoxy insists on the need for direct experience of the Holy Spirit (Ware 1979, p.102) as an on-going personal relationship with God in this life (Ware 1979, p.8). Whilst rooted in a tradition that has existed for many centuries, in this sense, the Orthodox way can be viewed as a living and developing way (Louth 2013, p.15).

2. Apophatic Mysticism (God as Mystery)

“God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped he would not be God” Evagrius of Pontus (Ware 1979, p.11)

“Anyone who tries to describe the ineffable Light in language is truly a liar – not because he hates the truth, but because of the inadequacy of his description” Gregory of Nyssa (Ware 1979, p.24)

This emphasis on experience and relationship reflects the Orthodox understanding of God as a mystery beyond human conception. God can be experienced but cannot be fully comprehended (Louth 2013, p.1). This leads to an apophatic form of mysticism in which we approach God by defining what is not God (Louth 2013, p.32)[i]. The pathway to God requires us to discard all human notions and images, all forms of impurity or idolatry (Chryssavgis 2004, p.61). In such circumstances truth is profoundly mystical and never merely intellectual (Chryssavgis 2004, p.56). It expresses itself best in the language of poetry and images (Louth 2013, p.114). Faith is understood not as logical certainty but as a personal relationship (Ware 1979, p.16). For the unknowable God can only be known in communion and participation (Chryssavgis 2004, p.57).

3. The Holy Spirit (as the Real Divine Presence)

“The Holy Spirit is light and life, a living fountain of knowledge, spirit of wisdom, spirit of understanding, loving, righteous, filled with knowledge and power, cleansing our offences, God and making us god, fire that comes forth from fire, speaking, working, distributing gifts of grace. By him were all the prophets, the apostles of God and the martyrs crowned. Strange were the tidings, strange was the vision at Pentecost: fire came down, bestowing gifts of grace on each” From Vespers on the Feast of Pentecost (Ware 1979, p.103)

The Holy Spirit plays an important role within the Orthodox way. Whereas in the West the Spirit has often been treated as a junior partner within the Trinity, Orthodoxy has resisted any move to depersonalise and subordinate it in this way (Ware 1979, p.92). The status of the Holy Spirit was one of the key issues at stake in the schism between the Eastern and Western churches that took place in the 11th century. The Orthodox tradition emphasises the real living presence of Christ (Louth 2013, p.51) and asserts that it is the Holy Spirit that reveals Christ to people (Ware 1979, p.91). This is based on an assumption that God's will is to be in communion with people in the Spirit (Louth 2013, p.95) and that direct mystical union between God and humanity is a possibility (Ware 1979, p.22). Bishop Kallistos Ware has argued that the whole aim of the Christian life is to be a spirit-bearer, to live in the Spirit of God (Ware 1979, p.90). As a result Orthodoxy rejects the idea that God’s revelation in the Spirit ceased after the death of the apostles (Chryssavgis 2004, p.51). Eastern Church Father Symeon the New Theologian stated that it was heresy to claim that later generations could not acquire the same vision of the Holy Spirit enjoyed by the saints (Chryssavgis 2004, p.53).

4. A Non-dualistic Vision

Eastern Orthodoxy is characterised by a strongly non-dualistic doctrine of creation (Louth 2013, p.37). It opposes any a rigid dualism in which God and the material are too clearly set apart from one another (Louth 2013, p.97) A profound sense of God’s presence within creation (Louth 2013, p.40) leads to a rejection of any sharp division being made between the sacred and the secular (Chryssavgis 2004, p.39). In the ‘iconic’ understanding of the Eastern Church the ‘other’ heavenly/spiritual world penetrates and permeates ‘this’ material/physical world (Chryssavgis 2004, p.47). Indeed, in Orthodox understanding this is what makes existence possible, because if God as an ordering presence in the world were to withdraw from it, the world would inevitably collapse (Chryssavgis 2004, p.122).

5. The Whole World as a Sacrament

Linked to this non-dualistic vision, the Orthodox tradition has viewed the whole of creation as a sacrament – an outward symbol or image of God’s grace (Chryssavgis 2004, p.126). Every visible or invisible creature is therefore to be understood as a theophany or an ‘appearance’ of God (Ware 1979, p.23). The active presence of God is always at the heart of each thing, maintaining it in its being (Ware 1979, p.46). The Eastern view has therefore been critical of Western rationalism for disenchanted and demystified the glories of the creation and regarding it as mere matter. We have disconnected this world from heaven and so have desacralized both (Chryssavgis 2004, p.110).

6. The Significance of Silence and Stillness (Hesychasm)

“Some of the Fathers have called this practice stillness of the heart, others attentiveness, others the guarding of the heart, others watchfulness and rebuttal, and still others the investigation of thoughts and the guarding of the intellect. But all of them alike worked the earth of their own heart, and in this way they were fed on the divine manna (Exodus 16:15)” Symeon the New Theologian (Smith 2012, p.183)

Given that in Eastern Orthodoxy God is understood to be ultimately beyond rational comprehension, the Orthodox way values the imageless and wordless attitude of silence as a fitting way to address God as mystery (Chryssavgis 2004, p.82). Silence has significance because it is the place where we meet the divine mystery (Louth 2013, p.5). In the Orthodox contemplative practice known as Hesychasm, the Seeker begins to ‘wait upon God’ in quietness and silence, no longer talking about or to God but simply listening (Ware 1979, pp.121-122). It is through this kind of contemplative prayer that one hears the voice of Christ (Louth 2013, p.7). Ware points out that the quest for the inward kingdom is one of the master themes found throughout the writings of the Greek Fathers (Ware 1979, p.55) and John Climacus asserts that “the one who has achieved silence has arrived at the very centre of all mysteries (Chryssavgis 2004, p.90). Silence is a way of surrendering all self-justification, giving up all of our infantile images of God and giving in to the living image of God (Chryssavgis 2004, p.71). This view is reflected in the Liturgy of St James which proclaims “let all mortal flesh keep silent, and stand with fear and trembling” (Ware 1979, p.32).

7. The Bible

“Spiritual knowledge comes through prayer, deep stillness, and complete detachment, while wisdom comes through humble meditation on Holy Scriptures and, above all, through grace given by God” Diadochos of Photiki (Smith 2012, p.169)

Consistent with its mysticism and emphasis on contemplative practice, Eastern Orthodoxy adopts a prayerful and experiential approach to reading the Bible (Ware 1979, p.111) regarding it as an icon of Christ (Louth 2013, p.8). This means that, although the book is a material object, it functions as a window through which the spiritual and heavenly dimension of reality can be perceived. The Holy Spirit therefore plays an essential role in the reading of the scriptures where the study of mere words gives way to an immediate dialogue with the living Word (Ware 1979, p.111).

What Has Gone Wrong?

How does the Eastern Orthodox tradition understand the world as it currently is, a world gone wrong?

8. The Nature of Sin

“There is only one way to salvation, and that is to make yourself responsible for all men’s sins. As soon as you make yourself responsible in all sincerity for everything and for everyone, you will see at once that this is really so, and that you are in fact to blame for everyone and for all things” Dostoevsky – The Brothers Karamazov (Ware 1979, p.63)

The Eastern Orthodox tradition has never accepted the Western doctrine of original sin understood in terms of a stain of guilt past genetically from generation to generation. Instead, it has worked with a concept of ‘ancestral sin’ in which humans inherit the implications of the errors and delusions of past generations (Louth 2013, p.73). We are all born into a world which is already structured in a way that makes it extremely hard for people to consistently do good and very easy for them to do evil.

9. The Human Condition

The Orthodox believe that in the conditions of the fall, humanity has created a deluded, imaginary world of their own devising (Louth 2013, p.72) and this is characterised in particular by disharmonious and dysfunctional relationships with God, with each other and with the rest of creation (Louth 2013, p.73). Despite this, the Eastern Church has rejected the doctrine of ‘total depravity’ because it believes that while the image of God in humanity has been obscured, it has not been entirely obliterated (Ware 1979, p.61). All humans still bear some trace of the true unfallen vision of humanity we see in Christ (Louth 2013, p.87).

10. Humans within Creation

A key dimension of human sin is an inability to see the world as a sacrament of communion with God (Chryssavgis 2004, p.48). In the conditions of the fall, the creation has become opaque to humanity rather than transparent, a window revealing God (Ware 1979, p.59). Humans were created to act as mediators of God’s grace within the whole creation. However, in the conditions of the fall we have become the source of division and destruction instead (Ware 1979, p.59). Human disobedience has undermined the harmonious order intended for the creation (Louth 2013, p.69). However, the havoc inflicted on the world by human sin is not strong enough to break the divinely sustained structures of creation (Louth 2013, p.89).

11. Good and Evil

“The paradox of suffering and evil is resolved in the experience of compassion and love” Nicolas Berdyaev (Ware 1979, p.57)

The Orthodox understanding of sin, the human condition and its impact on the creation fully recognises the darkness in human nature but still asserts that good is more powerful than evil.  Evil is a product of human free will (Ware 1979, p.47) but does not undermine the fundamental goodness of the world as God created it. Therefore, in Orthodox theology and spirituality there is ‘supreme good’ in God and ‘supreme evil’ is merely a delusion (Ware 1979, p.46).

The Solution

12. The Atonement

“Because Christ is the perfect Love, his life on earth can never become a life of the past. He remains present to all eternity. Then he was alone and bore the sins of men as one whole alone. But, in death, he took us all into his work. Therefore the Gospel is now present with us. We may enter inside his own sacrifice” Mother Maria of Normanby (Ware 1979, p.86)

The Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Incarnation and the atonement differs quite significantly from the positions that have been dominant in the West for the past thousand years. Firstly, the Orthodox emphasise the way in which, through the incarnation, God has bridged or reconnected the divine and the earthly dimensions of reality that were separated by the fall (Louth 2013, p.60). This reflects the nondualistic vision of Eastern Orthodoxy and the conviction that God in Spirit is fully present and active in the creation. An essential aspect of this is that, through the Incarnation, Christ as the Word made flesh fulfils the task of mediating God’s grace to the whole creation, a task that humans rejected in the fall (Ware 1979, p.70). Secondly, the Orthodox have retained a vision of the atonement that quite closely reflects the early church understanding of ‘Christus Victor’ rather than the ‘satisfaction’ or ‘penal substitution’ theories of the Western Church[ii]. Through his death and resurrection Jesus was victorious over evil and death (Louth 2013, p.55). On the cross God met sin with forgiveness and reconciliation, overcame hate with love, battled evil with goodness and conquered darkness with light and death with life (Chryssavgis 2004, p.141-142). The cross and the resurrection are therefore conceived of as the victory of suffering love, demonstrating that love and life are stronger than hatred and death (Ware 1979, p.80-81).

13. Salvation as Healing

Given that, for the Orthodox, the key purpose of the Incarnation was to reconnect heaven and earth and heal the human will (Louth 2013, p.65), the Church is often regarded as a hospital for the Soul. The emphasis is therefore on healing and transformation rather than on guilt and punishment. The human condition is regarded as a problem but priority is given to the redemption of the human will and moral choice rather than the human body (Ware 1979, p.75). In Orthodox spirituality, if our hearts are broken open, God can find and enter the open wound, bringing healing to the soul and to the world (Chryssavgis 2004, p.72).

14. Surrender and Self-Emptying

“Let no one deceive you with vain words (Ephesians 5:6), and let us not deceive ourselves: before we have experienced inward grief and tears there is no true repentance or change of mind in us, nor is there any fear of God in our hearts… If we do not attain such a state, we cannot be united with the Holy Spirit. And if we have not been united with the Holy Spirit through purification, we cannot have either vision or knowledge of God, or be initiated into the hidden virtues of humility” Symeon the New Theologian (Smith 2012, p.17) 

In the Orthodox tradition, the healing of the human will is achieved through a process of self-empting (of the deluded and alienated human self) and surrender to the will of God. Orthodox spirituality is therefore a way of renunciation and surrender (Chryssavgis 2004, p.17). Like Christ, we must all seek self-emptying in order to achieve unity with God (Louth 2013, p.21). This involves attaining a state of detachment where worldly values or self-centredness are not allowed to distract us from what is most essential which is our relationship with God and the world (Chryssavgis 2004, p.29). When we arrive at the end of our own individual resources, we find that an infinite and eternal source can open up (Chryssavgis 2004, p.66). “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

15. Theosis (Deification)

“What is the purpose of the Incarnation of the Divine Logos, which is proclaimed throughout the scriptures, about which we read and that yet we do not recognise? Surely it is that he has shared in what is ours so as to make us participants of what he is. For the Son of God became the Son of man in order to make us human beings sons of God, raising us up by grace to what he is by nature, giving us new birth in the Holy Spirit and leading us directly into the kingdom of heaven. Or rather, he gives us the grace to possess this kingdom within ourselves (Luke 17:21) so that not merely do we hope to enter it, but being in full possession of it, we can affirm: ‘Our life is hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:3)” Symeon the New Theologian (Smith 2012, p.211)

For the Orthodox, the Incarnation has opened the way to human deification (Ware 1979, p.74). This is now possible by the power of the Holy Spirit (Louth 2013, p.26) which transforms the creaturely being and glorifies it (Louth 2013, p.147). In the Orthodox way this process is known as theosis. Christ has the power to effect inner transformation (Louth 2013, p.7) but this requires our voluntary cooperation (Ware 1979, p.112). For Symeon the New Theologian the aim of the spiritual life is to become ‘all Christ’ (Chryssavgis 2004, p.75). However, the process does not end with the human. Reconciliation and the transformation of humanity leads to reconciliation and the transfiguration of the whole creation (Ware 1979, p.137). Rather than involving the destruction of the material world, the end times (eschatology) are understood as the deification of the whole creation (Chryssavgis 2004, p.26).

16. Universalism

“…there exists with (the creator) a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, (a love) which is without alteration, timeless and everlasting… No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal kingdom”  Isaac the Syrian (Louth 2013, p.158)

The Orthodox vision of the incarnation, the atonement, the powerful living presence of the Holy Spirit and the deification of the whole creation has led to a tendency within the Eastern Church towards a belief in universal salvation, that in the end all will be saved (Louth 2013, p.157). As the apostle Paul writes “when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

If you have found this information helpful, you might like to know about the following course at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre:

Icons and Iconoclasts : exploring Eastern Orthodox and Quaker spirituality

Friday 24 - Sunday 26 October I 16 places

On the face of it the spirituality of Eastern Orthodoxy and Quakerism would appear to be entirely incompatible; one values outward liturgy and the veneration of icons whereas the other rejects all outward ceremony and imagery. But are these two traditions really as far apart as they appear? We will consider this question by exploring themes such as holiness, creation, material and spiritual, inward and outward, light and darkness. Could opening up to the other's perspective bring spiritual enrichment to both groups?

Tutors: Stuart Masters and Lucy Faulkner-Gawlinski

End Notes

[i] In kataphatic spirituality or ‘via positiva’ God is described in positive terms (i.e. God is this or that). In apophatic spirituality or ‘via negativa’ God as mystery is defined negatively (i.e. God is not this or that).

[ii] Satisfaction and Penal Substitution theories of atonement are both variations on the same theme. God is angry because humans have sinned. In order to forgive humanity for their sins God requires someone to be punished. In his crucifixion Jesus takes this punishment on our behalf.


Chryssavigis, John (2004) Light Through Darkness: The Orthodox Tradition (Darton, Longman and Todd)

Louth, Andrew (2013) Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (SPCK)

Smith, Allyne (2012) Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts (Skylight Paths)

Ware, Kallistos (1979) The Orthodox Way (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press)


  1. Wow - this rings so many bells in terms of what I now believe. I've only recently learned of the difference between Orthodox views of sin and Western views, and I much prefer the Orthodox view! Also, the more I read the Epistles, the more universalist I become. In fact it seems to me that without the redemption of all things, the victory of the Cross is no victory at all. Thanks for this - I may have to come on the course in October...

  2. Thank you for your comment Veronica. I agree! That said, as a Quaker there are also many aspects of the Eastern Church that I find very difficult.

  3. This course looks as though it will be very thought-provoking. I hope you get full enrollment.

  4. Thank you Kristen! We are already pretty much up to capacity but might be able to increase numbers a bit.

  5. Thanks for another fine blog Stuart. You and other readers may be interested in a blog about a family with a Quaker mother and an Orthodox father. You need to stat reading back in time to the early posts to get an idea of how many of the differences and similarities were welded into a form of worship, and family life, that draws on both traditions. http://weedragon.wordpress.com/

  6. Thank you Ray, this looks fascinating!

  7. We were flatmates in Bath and i see you are doing this course with Lucy F -Gawlinski.I wonder if Lucy is related to george gawlinski who I studied with in Norwich as a trainee social worker? Thanks for all the info from bath lecture by the way...very informative.all the best, janet hyland

    1. Dear Janet, I thought I had responded to your message but it doesn't seem to be here. Apologies! Yes, Lucy is married to George and they were both at Bath but stayed off-site. Stuart.

  8. "The Holy Spirit is light and life, a living fountain of knowledge, spirit of wisdom, spirit of understanding, loving, righteous, filled with knowledge and power, cleansing our offences,"
    Stuart I am listening to the audio book" Living Buddha, Living Christ Thich Nhat Hanh." Who is also the narrator for the book. I have read this book a zillion times.Love it! Love it!Love it! Listening to Thich Nhat Han voice the words come alive for me spiritually. Chapter Two "Mindfulness and the Holy Spirit in particular. In this chapter, Thich Nhat Han draws comparisons between the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the Buddhist concept of mindfulness.Thich Nhat Han starts off by saying that he once asked a Catholic priest what his understanding of the Holy Spirit was. The priest said,(unorthodox answer love it) “The Holy Spirit is the energy sent by God.” With that said, Thich Nhat Han says," To me, mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit. Both are agents of healing. When you have mindfulness, you have love and understanding, you see more deeply, and you can heal the wounds in your own mind. The Buddha was called the King of Healers. In the Bible, when someone touches Christ, he or she is healed. It is not just touching a cloth that brings about a miracle. When you touch deep understanding and love, you are healed. The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove, penetrated Him deeply, and He revealed the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Jesus healed whatever He touched. With the Holy Spirit in Him, His power as a healer transformed many people. All schools of Christianity agree on this. I told the priest that I felt that all of us also have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us, the capacity of healing, transforming, and loving."

    These words resonate so deeply with me because there have been times recently when I have experienced this energy intuitively. Whether “the spirit-filled life” and Buddhist mindfulness are simply psychological conditioning or actual communion with spiritual reality, that is tough to say.What’s important for me greater appreciation of our lives and of the blessings within them.

    1. Dear Paul, thank you so much for your comment. I agree! I have a great deal of respect for Thich Nhat Hanh and have read both 'The Miracle of Mindfulness' and 'Living Buddha, Living Christ'. What we see in the Eastern Orthodox tradition and even more in the Quaker way is a rejection of the idea that the work of the Holy Spirit can be limited in any way. This means that it is possible to see the Spirit working in other faiths and in people of no faith.

  9. Beautiful summary, Stuart. Thanks for putting this together! I consider myself theologically Eastern Orthodox (for the most part), while claiming Anabaptism in all other regards. I'm quite interested in the Friends tradition as well, though I've not done nearly as much research into it at this point.

  10. Thanks Chuck. I share your interest. Quakers have tended to maintain the external 'gathered believers church' ecclesiology of the Swiss Brethren with some of the Christological, pneumatological and soteriological emphases we see in the writings of Thomas Muntzer, Hans Denck and the spiritualist wing of the Anabaptist movement. In terms of the links with Anabaptists and the Wesleyan tradition, you might like to look at Carole Dale Spencer's book 'Holiness: The Heart of Quakerism'. Shalom, Stuart.


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