Who does not love the rush of getting something new? I remember, with some shame, that this was in my youth the rush of Christmas. “What new gadget would I get? A video game? A computer? Oh, no….socks and underwear. The tragedy! My Christmas is over! So many friends of mine got cool expensive gadgets! And me? I got socks and a stupid old board game.” I needed that new video game or iPad or camera. The sense of loss was immense. While this is not my internal struggle with Christmas now, this still describes my curiosity and desire to have, hold, and implement all of the new technology and information I can get my hands on. Though, to be honest, now I really enjoy getting socks for Christmas. Perhaps I am getting older after all.
We have been conditioned to desire the new. Our economy thrives off of the allure and promise of the new. On one hand this is normal and good. Human creativity should produce and provide for us new technology. It is a natural product of us being made in the image of God and ordering the world in such a way as to see it flourish. On the other hand there can be something sinister in the quixotic quest for the new. The pursuit of the dopamine hit that comes with the new thing. The promise of life being easier and more enjoyable. Even, as it seems from some advertisements, that the new is what make’s life itself worthwhile. For how could you be truly alive and happy without the next best thing that solves the problems you didn’t even know you had?
Wired into this perspective is evolutionary logic. This is not per se about theories derived from Darwin. Rather it is the logic that what was once is no longer sufficient or as good as what we currently have come to understand. The route of history is a continuous line of development and movement towards the good. We see this logic in various discourses. The sciences are deeply wed to the narrative of humanity’s ascent out of the murky religious and unenlightened ignorance of reality which plagued the past, to the current rational, clear, and productive processes of modern science. This is true for liberal democracies of the West. The arc of history is the entire world embracing the entirely obvious good of liberal democracy. To question this is to stand outside of reason, it is to be retrograde. One of the chief sins for us in the West is to be old fashioned or wary of adopting what is new and obviously the product of reason, utility, and prosperity.
The allure of the novel and its supposed superiority affects our understanding of the faith once delivered to the Saints. What has been delivered to the Saints in the revelation of Jesus Christ, propounded to us in the Apostolic teaching, and vouchsafed to us in the Old Testament, is under constant scrutiny if read from the perch of novelty. This position of novelty is best summed up for us in the first theme criticised by The Hartford Appeal. “Modern thought is superior to all past forms of understanding reality, and is therefore normative for Christian faith and life”.
The assumption, that what is modern is superior to all past forms of understanding, approaches the text of Scripture and the tradition and immediately questions its authority and coherence. Because obviously, whatever was said 2,000 years ago cannot be reasonable or something that can command my submission, and in so many situations hardly even one’s attention. Therefore there is nothing to be discovered and submitted to in God’s revelation. In fact, there is no revelation of God. Scripture is simply a history of man’s experience of God. The tradition of the Church is simply the journal of humanity’s inner ponderings and experiments. We can only look back to these experiences as something informative. Can the Scriptures be authoritative? Heaven forbid. We know better. Why? Because we have liberal democracy, or knowledge of germs, or can turn on light in our homes with the flick of a switch. Or, perhaps even more perceptively, we know better because we have thrown off the shackles of religious authorities, sexual shame, and paternal wisdom.
So, when we encounter something we are unsure of, uncomfortable with, or doesn’t make immediate sense to us within Scripture or the tradition what is our response? Do we submit ourselves to understanding the coherence of the Scripture and tradition? To understand its logic and the fruit to be won from submitting to its wisdom? Or, do we off-handedly pitch it because it does not make sense to our modern proclivities?
The Hartford Appeal, in response to this particular instantiation of the loss of transcendence in the modern era, affirms a reality that we need to re-acquaint ourselves with. Being a Christian means that we are in confrontation with the powers and principalities. The Appeal “affirms the need for Christian thought to confront and be confronted by other worldviews…”. Being a Christian consistently puts us in tension with whatever thinking is en vogue. This is as true for the apostolic era or the medieval era as it is for our contemporary one.
Fr. Georges Florovsky understood the temptation to “measure the Word of God by our own stature, instead of checking our mind by the stature of Christ.”1 For Florovsky it is precisely the “modern mind” that stands under the judgment of God. It is the modern mind that looks askance at Scripture seeing there only myths or outdated morals.
The title of the essay drawn from above is “The Lost Scriptural Mind.” This was for Florovsky a serious concern. This was not a lament for the lack of knowing Scripture, which is something completely lamentable about today’s Christians. Rather, Florovsky was concerned with the loss of the primacy of Scripture and its relevance to the contemporary situation. That the truth of Chalcedon, the God-man Jesus Christ, is something imminently and existentially valid for contemporary man. What is most novel, most new, most invigorating and life giving is the Ancient of Days. The God-man who has breathed eternal life into the sinews of man. The truth of Chalcedon was true no matter the age and no matter the effervescent opinions of man. It was this dogma of the Church, that we have been visited by God in the person of Jesus Christ who became one of us, that was the true key to all of existence. The challenge for the Church is how we are to articulate and preach this message to all of the ever newly assembled theories and approaches to how we conceive of reality and how we conceive of human flourishing.
What we often get in Christian circles is not the truth of the dogmas and teachings of Scripture, but the burning questions of today coming at the text and producing pietistic or poorly translated equivalencies. The truth of God’s approach to man and his revelation in Jesus Christ is traded out for other concerns, myths, or approaches. We trade our birthright, the breadth and depth of Jesus Christ, for a pot of lentils, the most recent TED talks, Youtube self-help, or Twitter threads of vitriol.
This is the heart of the matter. Either God is primary and stands in judgment upon what man has done and is doing in creation or we stand in judgment upon Him. Either the revelation of God is sufficient to equip us for all good works, or in other words, for our flourishing, or it is insufficient and should be cast aside. The challenge is that once we have overthrown the supremacy of God’s revelation, what do we turn to besides the roiling passions of our feverish and idolatrous hearts? The canons of modernity do not contain or dampen these passions, even though they promise us that they can. Rather we exchange God for the gods of efficiency, utility, hedonism, and novelty.
Therefore, in our time of lost transcendence and presumed secularism, do not be surprised when Christians begin to abandon the historic teachings of the Church in order to be in sync with the times. The crux is that we repent or we usurp. What will we and our households choose?
See Part 1
Hello Fr. Greeson, Can you help me find part one? The search box does not seem to be working.
Does the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church ever change? Does it ever reform It´s theology? It´s morality? It´s thinking? Can this even be done without the church being accused of sacrificing at the alter of the zeitgeist?
Thanks for the article Fr. Daniel. Coming from a traditional evangelical background but on the way to Orthodoxy, I see this so often in our churches. The desire to be culturally relevant turns into so much running amok theologically and spiritually speaking. That said, what do Orthodox leaders say when the western culture (believing and non-believing people alike) looks at the Orthodox Church and says “It looks and feels so foreign” “It´s so liturgical” “They don´t sing contemporary hymns”, etc., etc. Do they have a point?