Tradition, Fundamentalism, and Modernity
In my two most recent posts, I responded in depth to an article from Public Orthodoxy about fundamentalism. The first response concerned the view taken by the article toward the Holy Fathers and Holy Tradition, and the second had to do with the relationship between Orthodoxy and the modern world.
There is one section of the article that I have not yet discussed, and that is its conclusion. In this case I truly believe that the author has saved the best for last, because in closing he makes one final point which I believe is extremely important for each one of us to consider. Here is what he said:
One related but broader problem for Orthodoxy is that from a certain point onward, she began to identify herself as against this or that, thereby ending up being anti-everything. Rather than drawing self-affirmation from the magnitude of her maximalist dogmatics and the beauty of her basic premises, Orthodoxy designates herself in juxtaposition to others, in effect making its believers intolerant towards anything falling outside her visible boundaries.
On the one hand, I think the author is quite unjust to make this accusation against Orthodoxy as a whole. Even in recent years, there have been many saints and elders whose writings and teachings can in no way be characterized in such a way — St. Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia, St. Paisios of Mt. Athos, Elder Aimilianos of Simonopetra, Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron, Metropolitan Tikhon (Shevkunov), to name only a few of the most prominent.
On the other hand, the phenomenon which the author of the Public Orthodoxy article describes is nevertheless undoubtedly real, and it is especially easy for us Western converts to fall into. To some extent this is natural, and to some extent it is even needful. When falsehood is widely being perceived and portrayed as truth, the Church does indeed have a responsibility to not simply pass this over in silence.
And in fact that is why I felt it necessary to critique this Public Orthodoxy article, because it is a prime example of a dangerous and growing trend in contemporary Orthodoxy (especially in academic circles): there is this sense among many of the faithful that society is making real and unprecedented moral progress, that social justice is on the rise, and that basically the Church is still stuck in the past, that as things stand She is on the wrong side of history, and that She needs to get it together and keep up with the times. And for all of its vagueness, I think there can be no doubt at all that this is precisely the kind of attitude that this article is promoting.
But there’s a reason why such an attitude is being accepted by so many believers. And in fact, I think it’s precisely the same reason behind the very phenomenon of Orthodox hyper-negativity and fundamentalism which the article so strongly denounces. Simply put, this reason is the profound tension which I think every single Orthodox Christian feels in their heart between the principles of the Church and the principles of the world. This tension is increasing with each passing day, and for many people it is now reaching the point where it simply cannot be ignored or suppressed any longer. So what do we do, how can we as Orthodox Christians go about relieving that tension?
I think that basically we have four choices. Three of them are easy, and the fourth one is extraordinarily hard (take a guess as to which one I’ll recommend). But all of them contain an element of truth, and it is absolutely vital that we understand what that element of truth is, and why it is that people end up choosing the paths that they choose. So I want to examine these four options, and also to illustrate each of them in light of the story from the eighth chapter of the Gospel of John, concerning the woman taken in adultery.
The first way of dealing with this tension between the Church and the world is to adopt the kind of attitude which the article in Public Orthodoxy is fighting against: we can more or less bury our heads in the sand, and simply insist that the Church is right and society is wrong and that’s all there is to it. And honestly, I agree with the author here: this really is fundamentalism, it really is a bad response, and it really does hurt the Church. It also hurts society, because it prevents people from taking the Church seriously, and as a result many souls which might have been saved are perhaps being lost.
But it especially hurts the Orthodox Christians who choose it, because this way of thinking can quite easily lead us into self-righteousness, pride, condemnation, triumphalism, and smug self-satisfaction. And of course when we allow ourselves to reach such a state, we become totally alienated from the grace of God. It short, we become Pharisees, and we choose the answer of the Pharisees: “Go ahead and stone the woman, since she clearly broke the Law and there can be no denying that!”
Yet there is still some truth in this response. People who adopt a fundamentalist mindset are trying to protect themselves and their families — as best they know how — from the very real spiritual dangers which are so pervasive in the modern world. And so we shouldn’t dismiss or denigrate such people, but rather we must take the real insight that they have into the dangers of modernity, and try to deepen and develop it. We must not simply reject modernity, but rather seek to understand it as fully as possible, in the light of Orthodox truth. Only then will we acquire the spiritual knowledge and fortitude needed to face and withstand the pressures and temptations of the modern world — because ultimately, such temptations can be found everywhere, even and especially in our own hearts. We cannot simply hide or run away from them.
On the opposite extreme is the second choice. It’s also an easy way out; in fact, it’s by far the easiest of all the options. That option is to simply leave the Church. Unfortunately, this is the answer that very many people — especially young people — are choosing these days.
And more and more often, it’s not because they simply don’t care and just want to live an easy and pleasure-filled life. There’s an element of that, of course, but what we are seeing around us in society goes much deeper than that. If you have read the Brothers Karamazov, this is really a variation of Ivan’s “giving back his ticket.” It’s a form of apostasy that is absolutely new and unique to the modern age: it is the rejection of Christianity on precisely moral grounds. It is the belief that the world has by now progressed beyond Christianity, that the new moral and political freedoms are in fact of more beauty and worth than the Christian Gospel. It is the choice to neither stone nor to forgive the woman taken in adultery, but rather to walk away entirely, in rejection of a religion which continues to insist that she did anything wrong in the first place. It is to proclaim that the woman needs no forgiveness, and that Christ and His Church are arrogant in the extreme for presuming to offer it to her.
But once again, even such a rejection of the Church still contains an element of truth. The people who make this choice are acting based on intuitions of humility and of love, and it is very dangerous and misguided for us as Christians to treat such people with scorn. In very many cases these people are in fact rejecting a distorted Gospel and a false Christ. And so the only proper and God-pleasing way for us to try to reach these people is simply to show them — with our words, yes, but above all with our own example— the true love and humility and beauty which can only be seen in the life of a saint.
There is a third choice, and while less extreme than either of the first two, it is nevertheless still a false answer and an easy way out. This response is essentially to try to somehow synthesize Orthodoxy with the spirit of the times, to try to work out some way of being able to both support what’s going on in society, and also to continue to be on good terms with the Church. This usually involves some sort of discovery that the Orthodox Church doesn’t really teach what everyone up until now thought that it taught, or else that it did teach it, but it really wasn’t essential to the Faith and so it’s OK for it to be wrong. According to this third choice we would not stone the woman taken in adultery because, sensing intuitively that to do so would be wrong, we conclude that adultery must not really be a sin after all.
And I think such a choice is definitely the one being advocated by the article in Public Orthodoxy. If you have read either of the first two parts of my response, you know that my treatment of the article has been extremely negative. Some have accused me of reading too much into it, particularly in that I took it to be (among other things) an attack on the Church’s teachings on sexual morality. It is certainly possible that I did misinterpret the author; if so, then I am relieved to hear it and readily ask forgiveness.
However, it is also possible that Fr. Lawrence Farley is right, and that the vagueness characteristic of this article (and of Public Orthodoxy in general) is a deliberate tactic being used to gradually undermine the Church’s teachings rather than openly contradict them. The article consistently casts modernity in a very positive light, as a praiseworthy movement of justice and goodness in the world, while repeatedly portraying the Orthodox Church as backwards, intolerant, arrogant, and corrupt. Moreover, the article also explicitly calls for Orthodoxy to be willing to “correct past mistakes stemming from ignorance and prejudice” regarding its cosmology and anthropology. The article does not specify what exactly these mistakes might be, but I do think that all of this constitutes sufficient grounds to at least seriously consider Fr. Lawrence’s warning.
This is not to say that it is impermissible to criticize what goes on in the Church at all. Even the most cursory reading of Church history will reveal that there have been many times when many people in the Church were seriously and catastrophically wrong. But the fundamental question is this: according to what criteria are we to judge? By the criteria provided to us by the Church Herself, or by some other criteria? Because if the criteria for judgement cannot be found within the Tradition of the Church, then there is absolutely no doubt at all that such criteria must be totally rejected, no matter how loving or reasonable or just they may seem. In the words of St. Paul: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be anathema.”
One of the fundamental problems with this article is that the author specifically discourages turning to the Fathers as our primary source of guidance, associating this with an idolatrous attitude of so-called “patristic fundamentalism.” As the same time, he laments that “the Church is backward-looking, always extolling a ‘glorious’ past whose norms must dictate present and future conduct.” Instead, he encourages us to look forward prophetically and to listen to the Holy Spirit, whom he claims is tasked with bringing about “new biological and social realities.” He is constantly castigating the failure of Orthodox Christians to keep up with the progress of society, and the overwhelming impression is that there are very many cases in which the world is right and the Church is wrong. In the words of the author, the Church “ends up so frequently falling far behind society, as the world becomes more human, more inclusive, and more just.”
This is a deeply dangerous idea, because once we have stepped away from the foundation of the Holy Fathers and Holy Tradition, then we are forced to instead rely on ourselves. We are left only with our own weak and easily-deceived discernment as to which suggestions come from the Holy Spirit, which come from our own desires and proclivities, and which come to us from the enemy. In other words, we are extremely likely to make any number of catastrophic mistakes, and to be totally swept away by the spirit of the age.
While it is true that sometimes we encounter problems and difficulties which are unique to the modern age, it is nevertheless also true that we have already been given in the Church absolutely everything needful for our salvation and instruction in the life of faith. There is no new truth to discover, no new revelation to be had in this life. The only Truth is Christ, Who is “the same yesterday, and today, and for ever.” We must therefore look neither to a lifeless past nor to future progress, but rather to Christ alone, Who in the words of the Liturgy is “ever-existing and eternally the same.”
We do not need to expand the boundaries of the Tradition, but rather we need to enter into it more deeply and more fully, so that we can apply that same Tradition to any new question which we encounter in our lives. We need to understand Tradition not with our heads, but with our lives. It is only by living the Gospel commandments that we will ever be able to acquire the mind of Christ. The Holy Fathers teach us that discernment is the crown of all the virtues.
This is the final, and indeed the only right choice in responding to this tension which we all feel inside us between the Church and the world: to reject neither out of hand, nor to attempt to synthesize them, but rather to go deeper into the Tradition, so that in its light we will be able to understand what in the world is good and what is evil, what is true and what is false, what is worthy of love and honor, and what must be cast aside.
I will close with some very wise words on this subject from Fr. Seraphim Rose, whom many indeed consider to be one of the so-called “Orthodox fundamentalists.” But as these words will show, this is very far from the truth concerning him.
Many things which happen in the world have their power: ideas have their power, political systems have their power, even art movements have their power because there is some seed of truth in them. And if you don’t understand what that seed of truth is and how it got mixed up with error, what it in it is genuine, what in it is fake, you will not be able to be living in the world today; and a Christian lives in the world. You must understand that a sectarian “saves” himself, and he “saves” anybody he can keep away from reality, keep in his little corner some place. But if that person goes out in the world and starts asking questions, he loses his sectarian views because it’s not plausible. He has to keep his sectarian faith in a little corner someplace…
An Orthodox world-view is not like that. Today, the true Orthodox Christians are very few. And therefore we are called… a sect. Therefore we should know, are we a sect or not? If we have our Orthodoxy as something like [sectarianism], that is, if we know the catechism, know the dogmas, and can expound the official teaching of faith, and everything outside of that is something hazy or given an over-simplified answer, then we are in danger of this very sectarianism. Because then Orthodoxy will be for us something which is very narrow. The path of salvation is very narrow, but Orthodoxy alone of all the religions is God’s religion; and therefore it does not deny those faculties which God gave us, especially reason which is the faculty by which we understand Truth.
And so it is that Orthodoxy is the one religion because it is the true religion, God’s religion, which has the answer to all, which understands everything which happens in the world. That does not mean that we have necessarily an absolute answer to everything, because that’s also a characteristic of sectarian mentality: they have an instant answer and they give it to you very simplified and there’s no argument. With Orthodoxy, rather, we open our minds, because since we have the truth we are not afraid of whatever science may say, or philosophy or writers, artists. We are not afraid of them; we can look at them with our Orthodox understanding and with an open mind and with an open heart to see what really is positive and understand whether they are valuable or not valuable, whether they are beneficial, whether they are harmful.
And so we can look around us at any phenomenon. The sectarian will look around him and say, “That’s evil: cut it off.” And with many things, of course, you have to do that, because there are things which, now especially, are flagrantly inciting to sin. But even in turning away from them and not exposing ourselves to temptation as much as possible, we have to understand why they are that way, why, what is happening….
For example, people who take drugs will tell you: “I am uncovering new areas of reality. Are you against new areas of reality? Are you against the deeper area of the mind?” Actually, the Holy Fathers talk about [the] deeper area of the mind – and what are you going to say to that? He’s not giving you some kind of new truth to which you can say, “That’s false.” He’s giving you some kind of new outlook. And you have to stop and think, well, what does this mean? What is the deeper area of the mind? Who is there, what’s going on? You have to be able to evaluate what is behind this kind of statement… in fact, it’s a very practical thing because a person might come to you and say: “Should I stop this or go on with it?” or “Is this evil?” And you have to know why. If you just say, “No, drugs are evil, that’s out,” then he very likely will not be convinced, because somebody else will give him a very plausible excuse. You have to tell him – of course you have to tell him, “You better stop because that’s very dangerous”; but [you] also have to be able to say, if you have a complete philosophy of life, why this is not right and where it’s going to lead you.
If we follow this advice from Fr. Seraphim, we will find in very truth and by our personal experience that our Holy Tradition is not dead but living, and in fact is synonymous with life itself since it comes to us from the Giver of Life. This is the true path, the Royal Path, which by the grace and mercy of God may we all learn to walk. According to this choice, in humility and in imitation of the mercy and the love of God, we do not stone the woman taken in adultery. But at the same time, like Christ we say to her: go, and sin no more. Amen.