My recent post, The God Who Is No God, spoke of Christianity as a set of practices. This is a crucial understanding – a requirement for a living faith. It requires that we ask the question of the rich young ruler, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Oddly, he did not ask, “What must I believe to inherit eternal life?” Nor does Christ give him an ideological answer.
He is first told to “keep the commandments.” On further inquiry, he is told, “Sell what you have. Give it to the poor and come follow me.” The entire conversation turns on actions.
The Christian faith turns on actions – even such things as prayer should be understood as actions. We do not need to have opinions about prayer. We simply need to pray. We do not need more careful understanding of the nous, the passions and hesychasm. We need to pray.
The question of action can become an important spiritual exercise. A way of phrasing the question of action is to ask, “What would it look like if….” This is not the same thing as saying, “What if?” It is asking the question of action (“what would it look like”). For example, “What would it look like were I to forgive my enemies?” A general answer is not the point. However, the point might very well be, “Then I would be able to look Jack in the eyes again.” It would probably look like something smaller, such as a conversation that has been postponed. Indeed, the question of action would more accurately be asked, “What would it look like if I forgave just one enemy?”
Imagine for a moment an aboriginal tribe. They live in isolation and are visited by an anthropologist. He notices a peculiarity about them: they do not lie. They are quite particular about it and tell the truth to a fault, despite the problems it creates. The anthropologist discovers that this is part of their religion (though religion might be an inaccurate word for such a life).
Such a description is closer to the idea of practice than most of what we think about in our day. It is instructive that there is a struggle within American Orthodox over many practices. Oftentimes such practices are discussed under the heading of customs or “little t” traditions. For example, Orthodox women in America are often uncertain about whether they should cover their heads in Church (the men are uncertain about this as well). I will offer no opinion in the matter. What is of note is that we are uncertain.
I could multiply this example. There are many reasons of our uncertainty in the face of practices (most of which have to do with varying opinions of clergy and the hierarchy). But the deeper reason has to do with the depth of our engagement in the secular culture. The culture will not impinge on our lives at the level of belief (at least not at first). The power of secularism is felt precisely at the point of practice. At that point, it creates an uncertainty. Is this practice necessary? Isn’t attention to such things just phariseeism? Won’t this practice offend those who visit? Etc.
Practices such as telling the truth, forgiving one another, kindness to all, etc., are obviously of paramount importance. But Orthodoxy is also the Church of icons. The last great Ecumenical Council was primarily concerned with practice. The making of icons was only part of the question addressed by that council. The veneration of icons was perhaps of far greater importance. The greeting of icons, with metanias and a kiss, may seem to be an action that belongs to the category of custom, but, if so, it is a custom (practice) so important that it required an Ecumenical Council. Other practices may not have required Ecumenical Councils but only because their practice was not attacked by groups of heretics.
I have no wish to stir up a controversy over matters that may seem of little importance. The question that has importance is the encounter between religious practice and secular culture. The moment of uncertainty is a key. If an action creates controversy within a parish, it is likely not a good idea. In parish life, things should be done in good order, and that good order is best kept by the guidance of the priest and goodwill between members.
What is certain is that the faith has its practices and cultural pressures should be acknowledged. Orthodoxy is not an ideology, but a way of life (including outward forms). The outward forms of our life are iconic in nature (at their best). They are not legal requirements. Who should understand the value of iconic forms better than the Orthodox?
With the advent of the Second Vatican Council, many practices of Roman Catholicism began to disappear. I am aware that many Catholics at present lament this aspect of their common life. One effect of this disappearance was the “mainstreaming” of Catholics within secular, protestant culture. They became indistinguishable. An unintended (surely) consequence of this change was the gradual mainstreaming of Catholic belief. Studies indicate that Roman Catholics are largely indistinguishable from their Protestant (and secular) counterparts within American culture. There is no practice which distinguishes them as a group.
I would quickly add that this is largely the same with studies of Orthodox laity within American culture. America is “multicultural” only in its mind (and not much there). Our variety is largely in name only. Orthodox sometimes lament the fact that we have little impact on the society in which we live. Some argue that jurisdictional unity will increase that impact. Jurisdictional unity is desirable because it is canonical. However, it will have little impact on the culture and even less on the powers-that-be.
I have always had an interest in the Amish and some Mennonite groups (they have a presence in Tennessee and Kentucky). Most people are familiar with their rejection of modern technologies (they drive buggies instead of cars and wear clothes and beards that set them apart). I have heard the argument many times that their rejection of the mainstream culture makes them ineffective as witnesses for Christ. However, I find it interesting that a group which numbers so few and famously rejects participation in the larger culture, is so well known and identifiable. Most people are aware that they are pacifist and reject violence.