I was struck by a conversation the other day saying that thinking the wearing of head coverings by women as something that ought to be done was something ignorant and fundamentalist in nature and not an appropriate way of thinking. This was from an Orthodox believer. This is an attitude that I met in Protestantism and it was one of the reasons I chose to become Orthodox. However, I am also finding the same attitude among Orthodox believers. Perhaps I am mistaken in my thought but for the following reasons I cannot agree with my friends opinion. I also think that this issue is one of the major dividing lines within Orthodox thinking and represents quite different understandings of Orthodox Faith and Life to the extent that one opinion or the other is really heretical because they cannot be held in harmony with each other and have a direct affect on the way of life of Christians and what ought to be done.
The first aspect I want to consider is why is fundamentalism such a bad word. From my computer dictionary fundamentalism is: “a form of Protestant Christianity that upholds belief in the strict and literal interpretation of the Bible, including its narratives, doctrines, prophecies, and moral laws.” While Orthodoxy is not Protestant and hence not strictly speaking fundamentalist, Orthodox beliefs are not much different from this, although Holy Tradition tends to prevent the narrow and limited literalness of Protestant interpretations of the Scripture. However, the Fathers tended to take Scripture fairly much at face value and some of the scholarly understandings today are not those of the Fathers.
I don’t think that fundamentalism is any problem as such because it is really an attempt to have a “true” faith that is not submitting to the faithless understandings of secular academics. Orthodoxy in its own ways has a fundamental set of beliefs beyond question and teaches that these are to be believed regardless of criticism. Angels, demons, and the Virgin birth are all true in Orthodoxy as well as miracles, prophecies, and of course the Resurrection. These are not mere allusions to some ideology but real historical facts. These beliefs in themselves don’t cause problems with those outside the Faith, other than at an ideological level.
The problem I believe is better classed as militantism. The forcing of ones beliefs on others from constant shouting on the street corners to the threat of death at gun (or sword/spear) point. This militantism can be grounded on some form a fundamentalist belief, which is conducive to this because it acknowledges a “true” believe that others need to share but it also requires a belief that others can be forced to become correct believers and this aspect is foreign to Orthodox thinking that values human freedom, although some historical events may go contrary to this without compromising the point. It is only when fundamentalism is tied with militantism that it is a problem otherwise it is a call to a strict form of Truth, which in many ways is central to Catholic thinking, in Christ.
The next aspect I wish to address is obedience. Are people really criticising obedience when they label things as fundamentalist? It seems that if one lives in obedience to their religious teachings they are labelled as fundamentalist, legalist and literalist as if obedience is a bad thing. This is quite contrary to the Orthodox mind where obedience, and quite strict obedience, is a central principle within the core of its spiritual life, especially in monasticism. Christ, Himself, teaches that to love God is to keep Hs commandments and the Apostles John re-emphasises this is his letters. St Paul also commands obedience from Christians and strictly to the traditions passed down. Labels may be given but obedience is part of the Orthodox way of Life. Those who teach otherwise are not doing so from an Orthodox mind and are speaking a false opinion or heresy. Many today seem to justify disobedience by way of time limiting or culturalising Scriptural commandments. Neither of these approaches is Catholic nor in keeping with the Fathers.
The final aspect is form. To many it seems that some commandments in Scripture are fairly unimportant because they are mere outer actions and appear to have no connection to the spirituality of the heart. One such commandment is regarding head coverings. Why is God worried about this? What does it matter? It is only something worn on the outside and not in the heart. These questions are comments seem to be rather common. However, they seem to miss some vital points.
Christianity is the Faith of God Incarnate. God appears in form and more than merely appearing lives and walks in a concrete human form that suffers and dies. It is concrete and can be drawn and touched. Christianity is spirit in form. To divorce one from the other is to deny the Incarnate. Spirit is expressed in and through form, not a a mere symbol but as necessary for the incarnation and union of spirit and matter to take place. The form is important because the spirit requires a correct form to be incarnated. Christ could not have become incarnate as an ant, neither can we be baptised by drinking something; water must be applied outwardly. The form is necessary for the mystery to be accomplished. So when God requires certain forms then they must be used carefully so that the mystery that they manifest may be truly manifest. Why does this matter? Because each Mystery is tied with our union with and in Christ. Improper Mysteries fail to unite us properly with Christ in body and spirit and leave us separate from Him. Refusing to use a correct form even in non-eucharistic and Baptismal Mysteries, such as weddings, also causes separation from Christ because we are refusing to unite with Him as He desires in all things and in all ways. All Mysteries are union Him in soul and body.
Head coverings, even though not immediately one of the forms of the “seven” central Mysteries, do in fact provide a form that manifests an aspect of our union with Christ. This is that man is to live in complete obedience to Christ, He is our Head in all things and always. We should all cover our heads for this matter but for another mystery of man sharing in the reign of Christ and as Kings having the head bear of authority. To express both things God arranged for woman to carry the sign of obedience, that we all have, and men the sign of reign, that we all have. To overturn this arrangement is to show impudence to God. Both men and women lose their proper places in disregarding this and they do not gain the place of the other but fall from both. This mystery is not cultural or temporal but will hold true until Christ returns. Note: the issue of head covering in not only in church services but always. We are not just Christians in church but always. We are not just obedient or reign in church but always. (See Saint John Chyrsostom on this matter.)
I have picked on one form but there are others and they are important parts of our Christian Life, which is an incarnate spiritual life. We are obliged to do as we are taught in practice and form as much as believe what we are taught in Faith. Both are unchanging aspects of Christian Life and in both matters I see Roman Catholicism has its sense of doctrinal and practical development, which it allows because it over emphasises the spiritual side of Mysteries over the form of Mysteries, whereas Orthodox has no such development and strictly speaking the same dogmas and practices are required today for belief and practice as have been since the Apostles. (In practice things are otherwise in many places but this is not officially taught as such.)
So, I regard any teaching that form as being irrelevant to Orthodox Life and teaching incorrectly to the Tradition of the Church. This is a major heresy because it goes to the core of the practical daily life of believers and is contrary to the Incarnate theology of the Church.