This is so obvious it should not need to be stated, but contemporary man often imagines himself to be his own creation. The exercise of individual freedom is exalted as the defining characteristic of our existence: “I am what I choose to be.” To suggest that most of who and what we are is beyond the realm of choice would seem to be a heresy, an insult to the modern project.
The primary mode of cultural education is not choice – rather – it is tradition. Most of what and who we are is “handed down” to us (literally “traditioned”). For the most part it is an unconscious process – both for the one who delivers the tradition as well as for the one who receives it. From the smallest actions of speaking to a baby, slowly passing on language, to the highest actions of belief and understanding, the vast majority of what forms and shapes us will have come through a traditioning. Free choice is largely exercised within the tradition: chocolate and vanilla are choices but both exist within the same tradition of ice cream.
We’re often not very aware of the “tradition” in which we live. A student in a classroom would readily agree that the words of a teacher or professor were a “traditioning” of sorts. But they will fail to notice that how the room is arranged, how the students sit, what the students wear (or don’t wear), how the professor is addressed, how students address one another, what questions are considered appropriate and what are not, and a whole world of unspoken, unwritten expectations are utterly required in the process. The modern world often imagines that “online” education is equivalent to classroom education since the goal is merely the transmission of information. But the transmission of information includes the process of acquiring the information and everything that surrounds it. Those receiving the “tradition” online will have perhaps similar information to those receiving it in a classroom – but they will not receive the same information.
This reduction of the world to information is a common error of the modern period. The world and data about the world are considered to be the same thing. The reduction of the world to information is the reduction of what it means to be human. And the result is a diminished person.
The Christian faith is neither immune from nor above this cultural requirement. From the most simple forms of Evangelicalism to the fullness of Orthodoxy, traditioning is the primary form of religious enculturation. It is simply how people learn. The denial of the role of tradition does not remove tradition from its place, it simply narrows the field of vision such that people become unaware of what they are doing.
Years ago, an Anglican priest friend visited a Baptist Church for the first time in his life. He had never seen this most common form of Protestant Evangelicalism. I laughed the next week when he describe his experience. “I went in the Church and I wasn’t sure where to bow!” He said. “There was no Cross!”
The same experience could have been reversed as a Baptist might describe his dismay at crossings and bowings and the like. But something is being taught and transmitted by such actions (or their lack). The Evangelical might complain that he sees “idolatry,” while their absence can convey a lack of the presence of God or a lack of respect for the things of God.
To learn to be a human is to live in a tradition.
In Orthodoxy, Tradition is both conscious and unconscious. It is conscious in that its reality is acknowledged and considered carefully. It is unconscious in that most of it operates in a manner that is not frequently discussed. It is both what things are done and how they are done.
But above this is the understanding of the Holy Spirit itself as the Tradition.
But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (1Jo 2:27)
I’ve often wondered at how people think the Holy Spirit is supposed to “teach us all things.” Early in my Christian life I thought there should be some sort of inner urging or near-voice whispering, “Walk this way…” But time has taught me that such promptings are often rooted well outside of God. Some would dryly suggest that the anointing of the Spirit guides us solely through the Scriptures. But that inevitably means that the cultural matrix of the world precedes the Spirit and shapes the reading of Scripture.
There is, instead, the teaching of Orthodox Christianity that offers the whole of the faithful people of God as the place in which and within which the Spirit forms and shapes us.
He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence. (St. Ignatius of Antioch)
The life of the Church, lived in continuity with the gospel, bears within it the ever-renewing life of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is that which gives shape and informs the Church (and its ethos). It is this inner life and ethos that is recognized regardless of the outward culture in which it is incarnate. Over time, the Church as ethos, forms and shapes even the culture in which it lives.
All of this is deeply challenged in the modern world, for every ethos that is not the ethos of commerce and consumption is challenged. Religious believing is allowed place within the ethos of commerce and consumption – as a form of ideas to be consumed or sold. Thus evangelism in the modern world is often pursued in terms of our consumer culture. But this distorts the gospel. To “choose” the gospel reduces the Kingdom of God to something that can be comprehended. We cannot freely choose what we do not understand.
If the “gospel” that you have embraced was received in a manner that can be described as “consumption,” then you have yet to perceive the gospel or heard the truth as it is in Christ.
When the presentation of the gospel becomes an invitation to choose, the cultural message, the “ethos” of such a gospel is saying something that is profoundly untrue and the gospel itself has been changed. There are indeed choices to be made along the path to salvation, but the gospel itself transcends such moments.
The pattern in the early Church for the proclamation of the gospel involved an invitation to a way of life. That invitation was not followed by immediate initiation – but by preparation. The process of catechesis (learning) often lasted as much as three years. It was closer to the process required for becoming the citizen of a new country than to marketing and consumption. The same process, or a similar tradition, remains the proper manner of evangelization.
The gospel is given to human beings. St. Paul uses terms such as “revealed” to describe the nature of the gospel. Indeed, even on a personal level he uses such language:
But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles…(Gal 1:15-16 NKJ)
We must not think of St. Paul’s revelation as consisting of nothing more than a decision on the road to Damascus. For he goes from there to Damascus and is baptized. He spends an unknown length of time in what he calls “Arabia” with no purpose described. But he returned to Damascus and remained there for three years. Then he made his first post-conversion journey to Jerusalem and met with the leaders there.
And the context of St. Paul’s conversion is already the same ethos shared by the disciples – Judaism. The new ethos into which he is baptized is a refinement and fulfillment of what he already knows.
Modern persons are formed in an ethos that is often alien to the gospel – and it is an ethos that destroys the soul. Loneliness, compulsion, and bondage to the passions through the materialist culture of consumerism leave them hungry – but ill-prepared for spiritual food. Salvation (understood in the fullest sense of the word) requires spiritual formation. We must learn and be formed by the Tradition of the Spirit in the ethos of Christ’s self-sacrificing way of life.
The Church itself rightly exists only when it is the embodiment and expression of that way of life – only when it can nurture human persons within its womb and give birth to gods, to paraphrase the fathers.
This inner life and power of formation, experienced as ethos, is the manifestation of Christ’s promise of the Spirit. This is the guidance into all truth, in the only way that is truly human. We are not thinkers or choosers. Human beings live – we rightly live in a manner that is itself a fullness. Only a fullness of life, a living ethos given as tradition can truly form human beings. We have never been formed in any other way, nor can we be.
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work. (2Th 2:15-17 NKJ)
Written from the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England
All articles are written by Fr. Stephen Freeman. He is Rector of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN.