Two Orthodoxies

4 January, 2009

I have thought to write this for a while but I have struggled to define what I understand as two diverging ways of thinking within the Orthodox Church today. These two streams are perhaps best illustrated with the Old Calendar schisms at perhaps one end, rather better to illustrate using the Monasteries on Mt Athos, and the in comparison the modern tendencies seen in some US and UK parishes.

Both groups claim a commitment to the Orthodox Faith and in some regard to Tradition. This latter point is where one can see the divergence most clearly; in how one regards the practice of Tradition and what they mean when they say “living Tradition”.

The best way of thinking about the motivation and mindset between the differences is rather more to do with the submission of the mind. Does one submit the mind to that of the Fathers and see and describe the world through their lenses, however, “out of touch” it may be with modern thinking or does one submit to modern thinking however “out of touch” it is with Patristic thinking (although this is rather a reinterpretation of the Fathers to fit with modern thinking by a process of accepting what is compatible and rejecting those parts not so by attributing them to cultural norms and influences of the Fathers’ time)? One in effect understands Tradition above time, place and culture and the other understands it as within culture and shaped by it. Both would argue that this is the mind of the Fathers and correctly corresponds with the Churches presence in the world: one tending to emphasise the eternal aspect and the other the historical.

Modern thinking has had a huge impact on Tradition and the work of many scholars has cut right to the root of Tradition and seemingly ripped the core out with their research and reinterpretation of history. The question is how are we to take this modern thinking. Do we accept it as being the most accurate because it is most up to date or do we ignore it as being of no importance or do we engage it and critique it? Many it would seem, especially among the intellectuals of Orthodoxy have accepted modern thinking and reworked Orthodoxy around this. Others have ignored it and continued with the Traditions such as some monks on Mt Athos. A few have tried to critique it in defence of traditional views.

While, I think that modern scholarship needs to be taken into account and addressed carefully, I would say that one needs great care before accepting it. That is because it is not based on submission to Tradition but one the research of those who are critical of Tradition, who do not approach Tradition with faith, whether inside or outside the Church. It is based on many modern humanistic assumptions that are not those of the Fathers nor of Christ. In fact most of those brought up with some from of Western based education are influenced by this, which makes accepting the thoughts of the Fathers very difficult. Such as how many of us would readily accept St Basil the Great’s instruction that it is best for a wife to stay with a husband who beats her? If one submits to the Father then one learns some important aspects of the mind of the Fathers and of the Church and would find themselves in reflection agreeing with St Basil because his teaching is in line with Orthodox Christian spirituality. I personally think that if one cannot accept his teaching then one has not yet understand nor obtained the Orthodox/Fathers/Christ’s mind, distinguishing between the principle and the application of this teaching to modern times.

I believe that the Orthodox path is first to submit to the Tradition and accept it as one’s own, as it is. Until such thinking is done, one cannot grasp the mind of the Fathers. Only then can we tailor Tradition to meet the modern world, so that it is preserved and not changed. Those who have submitted to modern thinking and try to fit Orthodoxy to this will go astray and change the Tradition without understanding it. There are many good questions raised by modern thinking that should not be ignored but these need to addressed from within Tradition in the terms of Tradition and not in the terms of modern thought.

Tradition is the Life of Christ expressed in the Church. It is Truth; a personal and living Truth that is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow because it is Christ Himself. Thus, where modern thinking is contrary to this it must be a lie and needs to be shown as such. Submitting to modern thinking first is do deny the continuing presence of Christ in the Church, His Body, and to submit to those of men. This way of thinking will lead Christianity to becoming another world religion and another social organisation that seeks the betterment of the world as an end in itself rather than seeking first the Kingdom of Heaven and then seeing the world confirmed to and transformed by this by being encompassed in it, that is the Church, which is in this world but not of it, while waiting for the final day when all things will be renewed. Modern thinking is becoming increasingly debased from the Gospel and hence increasingly “out of touch” with the Church. It is not Tradition that is “out of touch” because it is in touch with the True Life, Who is Christ, the world rather is moving further from Him and “out of touch” by rejecting His Life and substituting one of its own, which is bound to die because it is bound to this world of time and space.