Belief and Practice

russianorthodox0906aA friend sent me a review of the book The Byzantine Lists: Errors of the Latins by Tia M. Kolbaba (University of Illinois Press). The review is by Elesha Coffman, associate editor of Christian History. An excerpt from the review offers an interesting insight:

According to Kolbaba, historians have never really studied the lists because of their unusual content: a mixture of theological, liturgical, and seemingly personal disagreements. Keroularios’s list accuses Latins of, among other things, using unleavened bread in the Eucharist, eating unclean meats, shaving [this refers to clergy], adding “and the Son” to the Nicene Creed (the “filioque” clause), forbidding priests to marry, allowing bishops to wear rings, and baptizing with only one immersion. Keroularios sums up by saying, “Therefore, if they live in such a way and, enfeebled by such customs, dare these things which are obviously lawless, forbidden, and abominable, then will any right-thinking person consider that they are at all to be included in the category of the orthodox? I think not.”

In the lists, we see one of the main differences between Western and Eastern thought. Latin antiheretical works focused on doctrinal differences, but to Greeks, Kolbaba writes, “It is the things these ‘Romans’ do—not what they believe and teach—that place them beyond the pale.” To Latins, practice, including liturgy, is an outgrowth of doctrine and therefore secondary; to Greeks, practice shapes belief and is therefore of ultimate importance.

“Practice shapes belief,” a principle frequently cited by scholars both East and West in its Latin formulation: Lex orandi, lex credendi. The phrase is accurately translated, “the law of praying is the law of believing.” It is a formula primarily used to discussed liturgical practice – and frequently only in reference to the words in liturgical use. Kolbaba’s work demonstrates a more global meaning.

The Christian faith – indeed all of human life – is far more than a set of ideas to which we subscribe. It is not unusual for our professed ideological faith to differ from what we actually do – and not just because of hypocrisy or our failure to live up to what we say we believe. Our lives are grounded far more in our actions and activities than in our ideas. What we do is a far more accurate description of what we believe. Lex orandi can also be described as lex vivendi (the “law of living”).

This is an important basis for considering the place of asceticism – and all of spiritual discipline – within the Christian life. It has become commonplace for asceticism to be disregarded in modern Christian practice – to either be seen as a misguided relic of the past or as incompatible with the needs of contemporary society. It is indeed incompatible with the needs of contemporary society. In our modern cultures we best serve the “needs” of others by being as open as possible to manipulation by advertising and the many false deities that guide our daily lives. Of course that service will not be of aid in Christian formation.

I have written before that our modern lives are lived in a manner that is almost indistinguishable from that of non-believers. A secular culture offers only nooks and crannies for the practice of religion – and is not troubled in the least so long as religion “stays in its place.”

The keeping of fasts and feasts, a daily rule of prayer, disciplined almsgiving, modesty of dress and modesty of action are frequently ignored or even unknown in the contemporary Christian world. “Why should we fast?” is a common question posed by catechumens in the Orthodox Church. The answer does not appear obvious within our culture. The short list I have mentioned is only a fraction of the practices normatively expected of an Orthodox Christian. The cultivation of repentance as an attitude of heart – the constant remembrance of the name of God – the right honoring of the saints and the living experience of the communion of saints – are among the practices which properly permeate the Orthodox life.

Examined from without – it is possible to suggest that such practices are not, in and of themselves, necessary to salvation. But, I would argue, a secular lifestyle is not necessary to salvation and may very well endanger it. The errors bred by secular thought already cost our nation the lives of over a million unborn children each year (to give but a single example). “Heresy” as an ideological sin may be of less danger than the disappearance of the traditional practices of the Christian faith. Indeed, what does it matter what a secularist believes?

This same understanding is properly a challenge to the Orthodox faith as it exists in the modern world. Everywhere – including within traditionally Orthodox countries, the culture of modernism lives at enmity with the traditional practices of the Christian faith. The pressure to accommodate the practices of the faith to contemporary lifestyles is relentless. Indeed, with the growing influx of converts, Orthodoxy stands in need of greater emphasis and teaching on the daily practices of the Christian life (and I speak as a convert).

Lex orandi must always be lex vivendi. Without them there will be no lex credendi. My apologies to those who struggled with Latin (or never studied it). The Byzantine Lists today would have to be greatly expanded from the original “errors of the Latins”: the errors of the moderns exceed anything that has gone before.

Comments