Cairns is Eastern Orthodox, but he was not raised in that faith tradition, coming to it as an adult through his reading in ancient sacred texts. Cairns is comparable to contemporary Eastern Orthodox converts like the theological writer Frank Schaeffer, who combine a devotion to Orthodox liturgy and tradition with a Protestant piety and fervor—although Cairns is much more liberal politically. Cairns’s poetry can suggest a difference between American poetic converts to Eastern Orthodoxy from Protestantism and those formerly Protestant poets who have converted to Roman Catholicism. Whereas the Catholic convert Robert Lowell, in the work he published in the late 1940’s and 1950’s, assumed a deliberately ornate style, Cairns’s plainspoken style is reminiscent of contemporary Protestant poets such as Walt McDonald or Julia Kasdorf. He does not often use rhyme or traditional verse forms, and, despite the complexity of some of his vocabulary and allusions, does not wish to make reading the poem a difficult experience. Cairns combines an Orthodox sense of liturgical blessing and internalized pilgrimage with a Protestant stress on the accessibility of the Word in the biblical sense—and the word in a poetic sense—to every professing congregant. Cairns is not seeking after conventionally devotional subjects; if he is a poet of divine redemption, he is also a poet of the human sin and despair that in Christian terms necessitates such redemption.
Cairns refers to theological concepts such as apocatastasis (the doctrine that all that has been lost will be found someday and that good and evil will ultimately be reconciled), which, although generally Christian concepts, receive special emphasis in Orthodox Christianity with its emphasis on resurrective life and participation in the spirit of God. He tries to take these abstract concepts and endow them with the sinew of poetic language.