One might think that educating a child is merely a mundane and functional activity, but in fact children bear the image of God, and so do teachers (as do all humans), and education is also an act of giving back to God, therefore the education of a child is a sacred activity. This statement is difficult because it contains three mysteries. If we claim that children bear the image of God, that teachers bear the image of God, and that teaching is an act of giving back to God, then we step outside the merely functional, the merely analytical, and the merely descriptive. Rather, we step into a cosmological orientation that is both ontologically and teleologically grounded in the God of creation in whom we live and move and have our being━all of which is a mystery. In order to claim that the education of children is a sacred activity we must understand what it means to bear the image of God, what it means to give back to God, and what it means for an activity to be sacred.
What does it mean that children bear the image of God? In the Genesis account God creates and breathes life into man. This breath was not merely physical life but, more profoundly, spiritual life that set man apart within creation. Man inhabits a unique position within creation. In Genesis 1:26-27 this unique position is indicated by the counsel of God (“Let Us make”), that man was to have dominion over creation (“let them have dominion”), and that man was made in God’s image (“in the image of God He created them). But what does this divine image or “ikon” in man denote? We can infer from Scripture and our own experience three denotations: (a) A fundamental, qualitative difference between human nature and animal nature; (b) a knowledge of good and evil, that is, a moral capacity; and (c) a spiritual capacity based in an inward freedom. For a child to bear the image of God means, then, three things: (a) Every child is uniquely different than the rest of creation, with both an inherent moral and a spiritual capacity; (b) that to “bear” means both to carry and to bring forth, and therefore a child has that divine image at all times, carried and brought forth as fundamental characteristics of his nature, and those characteristics will become evident in all he does; and (c) that image is a gift from God, is therefore blessed, and thus is an inherently good goal to pursue just as we all seek to be more like our maker.
Teachers also bear the image of God. That divine image is inherent in the nature of the teacher just as it is within the child. In that sense both the teacher and the child are equals. The relationship between teacher and child is of one image bearer relating to another image bearer. However, to consider the teacher as image bearer is not the same as considering the child as image bearer. The teacher, by nature of being a teacher, has (is given, must assume) a role different than that of the child. The nature of pedagogical authority is that of service and example. Thus, to consider the teacher is to then consider Christ, the perfect “ikon” of God, who humbled himself, who washed his disciples feet, and who gave up His life (both death and resurrection) for the life of the world. Teachers then generally and specifically bear the divine image such that they both carry and bring forth the likeness of Christ (however imperfectly) in order to elicit the same likeness within the child.
Teaching is an act of giving back to God. What does it mean to give back to God who needs nothing? Teachers, as with all of humanity, have been given the image of God, including their moral capacity, their spiritual capacity, and their inherited dominion over all creation. In other words, teachers have been given the world as a gift of God’s grace. Therefore, just as Adam was called to enjoy the fruits of creation and to name the animals, teachers are called to find the same pleasure in creation, to see the world as God sees the world, to understand and reveal the essence of creation, and to know that this world is God’s gift to man. This “seeing” and “revealing” is the natural reaction of man to creation━a creation that was not only made by God and made for man, but was also blessed by God. To be educated is to take the world into one’s body, as it were, and transform the world into oneself, into the flesh and blood of one’s very being, of one’s character. This process of transformation is education’s gift to man and the educator’s blessing to God; it is giving back to God in the spirit of thanks. To react thus to what God has given is to thank God, to bless God, to give back to God. To teach is to guide the student to do likewise.
What does “sacred” mean and what does it mean in the context of teaching? Let us avoid technicalities and consider sacred, sanctity, and holiness to be essentially the same, and let us understand that the sacred is that which is worthy of respect, of devotion, and of inspiring reverence. Simple enough, and yet we must not embrace the sacred/secular split where matter, the “stuff” of creation, is merely material, merely stuff. If creation is blessed by God then all of creation is shot through with the glory of God. Some actions, some activities, some places may have a special spirit of sacredness within the context of the story God is creating, but there is no area of life, no corner of creation that can resonate with a fundamentally non-sacred essence; God is the only source of life. However, fallen man seeks another source. Man splits the creation into the sacred (the “spiritual”) and the profane (the “world”) in order to pursue a life apart from God. But God calls man back to the view that all of life, all of creation, all that is good, is sacred. Teachers are called to embrace God’s perspective and to guide their students toward that view. Education, if related to “the world”━that is, the (falsely) profane━only, merely as a process of accumulation, transmission, and communion with the “world,” is an education cut off from the source of life.
We can then see, with a cosmological orientation (to see the world as God sees the world), that educating a child is not merely a mundane and functional activity related to a merely profane world. Educating children is a sacred activity because children bear the image of God, and so do teachers, and we understand that education is also an act of giving back to God. Educating a child is to bring the blessed world to the child, and to guide the child to take that world into his soul, transform it and let it transform him, and then to give that world back to God as his thanks. The education of a child is an activity worthy of respect, devotion, and reverence. It is an activity worthy of our sacred humanity.
I begin this post with a confession of sorts. I have been exploring and writing about my encounter with the Orthodox Church, but I am largely ignorant of much of that which I write. I should not pretend to know what I do not understand. I am not a member of the Orthodox Church. Only once have I visited an Orthodox Church. I have done some reading, but very little. I am an outsider. Take everything I say, every claim I make about Orthodoxy with a grain of salt. But one additional confession I make is that I am loving this topic of study. The texts I am reading are rich and provocative. The insights stir my soul. I still have many questions and some apprehensions. That is why I am writing these posts; I may be foolish to do so, but it is my way of thinking through it all. I pray that God will continue to guide me and bless this project.
The life of the Church in its essence is mystical; the course of its life cannot be entirely included in any “history.” (Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, p. 231)
Tradition is the witness of the Spirit. [. . .] It is this divine promise that forms the basis of the Orthodox devotion to Tradition. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 199)
However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you. (The Gospel of John 16:13-15, NKJV)
The Orthodox Church claims to be the keeper of the Holy Tradition of the Church. The practices of the Orthodox Church look and feel very different from the Protestant traditions I grew up with, which look rather anemic in comparison (though I have very little first-hand experience or knowledge of Orthodoxy). I believe it is natural for anyone outside the Orthodox Church to look in and wonder at not only the apparent strangeness of it all, but how does the Orthodox Church claim to know what is Christian Tradition?
Although the Old Testament is full of liturgy (leitourgia), the New Testament is nearly devoid of specific directions on how to “do church” or even how to do Bible study. Yet, as far as I know, the historical evidence shows an early church that was vibrant, was concerned with preserving the teachings handed down by the Apostles, and was deeply liturgical. It is interesting that the early church, which seemed so wild and radical on Pentecost ended up so quickly with a way of doing Christianity. In other words, from the beginning it appears the Church was liturgical. Why wasn’t it all written down? According to Saint Basil the Great (330–379) much of the early Church’s Tradition (Orthodox Tradition) was transmitted orally and preserved in secret or “in a mystery.” In his work On the Holy Spirit he writes:
Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay; no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as having no written authority, on the grounds that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well-known, content with what the apostles or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.
We can see in St. Basil’s understanding a kind of intersection between the vertical line of Tradition, that is the relationship between God and man, and the horizontal line of traditions, that is the specific actions of believers in light of, and within that vertical Tradition. Vladimir Lossky states:
The unwritten traditions or mysteries of the Church, mentioned by St. Basil, constitute then the boundary with Tradition properly so-called, and they give glimpses of some of its features. In effect, there is participation in the revealed mystery through the fact of sacramental initiation. It is a new knowledge, a “gnosis of God” (γνῶσις θεοῦ) that one receives as grace; and this gift of gnosis is conferred in a “tradition” which is, for St. basil, the confession of the Trinity at the time of baptism: a sacred formula which leads us into light. Here the horizontal line of the “traditions” received from the mouth of the Lord and transmitted by the apostles and their successors crosses with the vertical, with Tradition–the communication of the Holy Spirit, which opens to members of the Church an infinite perspective of mystery in each word of the revealed Truth. Thus, starting from traditions such as St. Basil presents to us, it is necessary to go further and admit Tradition, which is distinguished from them. (In the Image and Likeness of God, pp. 147-148)
Thus to separate Tradition and traditions is to create a false dichotomy. They are inextricably linked in the life of the Church, which is the witness of the Holy Spirit.
But if it is true that there were teachings handed down from the Apostles and early church fathers verbally and not in written form, and that some traditions were handed down that way because of the need to preserve a kind of secrecy around aspects of the Gospel or Christian worship and liturgy, then where do we find those teachings and traditions? Naturally this is going to be a challenge, and I confess I am not up to the task. Neither am I a historian or a diviner of hidden histories. At some level I have to take some claims on faith. I have to look at that list of elements of Orthodox Tradition presented by Bishop Kallistos (see my previous post) and decide whether it makes sense or not. I have to decide if St. Basil’s understanding of hidden Tradition handed down in secret makes sense–and whether Basil himself is trustworthy. I have to seek wisdom and trust in my God-given rationality. I have to turn to God and rest in His love–His love for His Son, His children, His Church.
I can also look at writings, like those of Saint Justin (103–165), and read what he says in his First Apology on “doing” Church:
CHAPTER LXV — ADMINISTRATION OF THE SACRAMENTS.
But we, after we have thus washed him who has been convinced and has assented to our teaching, bring him to the place where those who are called brethren are assembled, in order that we may offer hearty prayers in common for ourselves and for the baptized [illuminated] person, and for all others in every place, that we may be counted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, by our works also to be found good citizens and keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an everlasting salvation. Having ended the prayers, we salute one another with a kiss. There is then brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of wine mixed with water; and he taking them, gives praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, and offers thanks at considerable length for our being counted worthy to receive these things at His hands. And when he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all the people present express their assent by saying Amen. This word Amen answers in the Hebrew language to genoito [so be it]. And when the president has given thanks, and all the people have expressed their assent, those who are called by us deacons give to each of those present to partake of the bread and wine mixed with water over which the thanksgiving was pronounced, and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
My notes: Notice the convert must be baptized and must believe in the teaching before he can go to the place where the other brethren are assembled. This would imply that the assembly is, in a sense, off-limits to others until they have gone through significant steps of initiation. If this is true then the idea of a hidden tradition as described by St. Basil is supported by St. Justin. Also notice the “steps” they go through with this gathering. Although the details are simple, there is a specific liturgy in place.
CHAPTER LXVI — OF THE EUCHARIST.
And this food is called among us Eukaristia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus [my italics] who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.
My notes: Here St. Justin argues the Eucharist is “the flesh and blood of that Jesus.” This early Christian perspective would seem to contradict a merely symbolic understanding of the Eucharist (which is the view I was taught). To support his understanding he cites the “memoirs” of the Apostles–remember this is a couple of centuries before the New Testament was pulled together. It also seems clear that there is a Tradition that is being handed down and preserved. Thus, we have a liturgical and a sacramental Church already fully in place in the second century.
CHAPTER LXVII — WEEKLY WORSHIP OF THE CHRISTIANS.
And we afterwards continually remind each other of these things. And the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead. For He was crucified on the day before that of Saturn (Saturday); and on the day after that of Saturn, which is the day of the Sun, having appeared to His apostles and disciples, He taught them these things, which we have submitted to you also for your consideration.
My notes: Here we have the weekly liturgy described in some detail. There is a Sunday gathering, readings from scripture, teaching, prayers, and an offering taken. The Eucharist is part of this gathering every week. There is an emphasis on the commonality of believers and the importance of Sunday beings the day of weekly gathering. Again we see a picture of a very early liturgical Church.
From these three paragraphs we see the early Church had a Tradition, based in scripture (the Old Testament), the writings of the Apostles (their “memoirs”), what must be oral teachings handed down from the Apostles, and specific actions (baptism, communion, etc.) also handed down. This text likely dates from around 156 A.D. St. Justin was young enough to have known some who had been directly taught by the Apostles. His own experience was of almost the earliest Church, and certainly as an inheritor of the early Church traditions. What we have here are descriptions of a process and a way of “doing church.” Though not elaborate, nonetheless we have a liturgy and a sacramental “mind-set.” And we can see that one does not enter into the practices of the Church until one has been baptized, etc. The Church “hid” its liturgy from those who are not baptized. Thus St. Basil is right to say that much of Church Tradition was delivered out of sight of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation.
The fact is, though, that whether hidden or revealed, whether written or spoken, whether canonical scripture or verbal traditions, there still remains the common denominator of the word. Lossky states:
The two [Tradition and Scripture] have this in common, that, secret or not, they are nonetheless expressed by word. They always imply a verbal expression, whether it is a question of words properly so-called, pronounced or written, or whether of the dumb language which is addressed to the understanding by visual manifestation (iconography, ritual gestures, etc.). Taken in this general sense, the word is not uniquely an external sign used to designate a concept, but above all a content which is defined intelligibly and declared in assuming a body, in being incorporated in articulate discourse or in any other form of external expression.
If such is the nature of the word, nothing of what is revealed and makes itself known can remain foreign to it. Whether it be the Scriptures, preaching, or the “apostles’ traditions guarded in silence,” the same word λόγος or λόγια can equally be applied to all that constitutes expression of the revealed Truth.
Thus we see that separating Tradition and Scripture is to tear apart the very Church itself. It also (like separating Tradition and traditions) creates a false dichotomy at the very heart of the λόγος. The issue is not whether something is visible or hidden, but whether it is true; it is about content. However, our experience shows us the further one gets away from certain traditions the stranger they become. In other words, as the Western Church altered or disregarded what is held by Orthodoxy to be the Tradition of the Church, and as the Western Church contributed to the building up of societies and cultures based on those alterations or negations, then those who embody such societies and cultures will find the claims of Orthodoxy very foreign indeed.
For a long time I have held a rather unformulated view that the early Church turned away from Apostolic teaching very early, maybe even while the Apostles were still alive. We read in the New Testament epistles of various problems within various churches; think of the church in Corinth and also in Galatia. But is this view accurate? I am more or less convinced that my views were formed by a Protestant way of thinking, a way that is committed to seeing the historical church (read Roman Catholic) as apostate in order to legitimize its “necessary” rebellion. If one is going to refer to the office of the Pope as the Antichrist then one cannot really accept anything that is Catholic. So how far back does one have to go to be rid of the Catholic stain? All the way to the Apostles and no later? Not only is this a “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” way of thinking, but it is entirely blind to the existence of Orthodoxy. I am more and more convinced that not only was the Reformation a somewhat dubious affair, but there is a tendency in modern Protestant-influenced cultures to dismiss most of church history. More than this, much of Protestantism is based on a nearly overpowering negative relationship to Catholicism such that its theology might be warped too far towards sola scripture, sola fide, et al. and not nearly as evenly balanced as it might suppose, or should be. In this context Orthodoxy can be a fresh wind, but also an alternative reality. Certainly Orthodoxy is a challenge to Protestantism, not merely at a doctrinal level, but as a whole reorientation of basic principles and perspectives. Orthodoxy is a different set of lenses.
The Holy Spirit
Christians believe that the establishment of the Church really began on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Apostles and those with them. The Church also grew and the Gospel was carried throughout the world because of the continued outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Do we trust this is true? Do we believed the Holy Spirit was present in the early Church, or do we let our skepticism guide us away from the post-Apostle-era Church? Was there Pentecost, a few years of missionary work, then darkness? Or did the Holy Spirit continue to guide the Church, open the eyes of Christians to the truth, and establish traditions of doctrine and worship? We know the Apostles and their immediate followers had a high view of the transforming and continuing work Holy Spirit:
For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a, ESV)
More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5, ESV)
For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:16-21, ESV)
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7, ESV)
But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you. (2 Timothy 1:11b-14, ESV)
The rest of the Churches, in honour of Jesus Christ, also salute you. Fare ye well in the harmony of God, ye who have obtained the inseparable Spirit, who is Jesus Christ. (from the Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Magnesians, circa 105-115 A.D, Chapter 15)
The apostles have preached the Gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ [has done sol from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments, then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Spirit, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first-fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus says the Scripture a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops s in righteousness, and their deacons in faith.” (First Clement, Chapter 42, circa 80-140 A.D.)
Do we believe that Christ promised to establish His Church on this earth and that He will maintain it until He returns? To say yes to this question is to say yes to the continuing work of the Holy Spirit since the day of Pentecost. In the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (28:20) Jesus says to His disciples, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Earlier in St. Matthew (16:18) Jesus says, “I will build my church, and the gates of hellshall not prevail against it.” Do we believe that Jesus has been with His Church always from the beginning? Do we believe that the gates of hell have never prevailed? One can easily get the impression from Protestant theology (at least of the Radical Reformation) that the answer to both these questions is no, that is, until the Reformation. And even then Protestants have a tendency to say that Jesus has not remained, and the gates of hell have prevailed, when it comes to Protestant denominations other than one’s own. Does it not make more sense, however, to understand that it is Christ and His Church that has prevailed all along, that the Holy Spirit has always preserved the Church from the Apostles to the early Church to the later Church, and that in times and places where it would seem this is not true it is, in fact, merely the particular waxing of human sinfulness and foibles (or our own understanding) that is to blame–but that in general the Church has always remained? And if this is so, should we disregard the first 1,500 years of Church history?
From the very beginning creation has been contingent and dependent on God. The Church from its beginning, likewise, has always been contingent and dependent on God. The Church could not have grown as it did, spreading throughout the world as it did, without the work of the Holy Spirit. We know that “no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3) This truth was proven in the early centuries of the Church through persecution and by the blood of the martyrs, who died by the thousands. The fact of martyrdom acts as a kind of certification of authenticity the way the miracles of Christ authenticated His ministry and His messianic claims. If we want to compare the early Church (a church that was liturgical and sacramental) with the Church of our own age, and then ask the question which Church exhibits the greater working of the Holy Spirit, my money would go on the early Church. Regardless, we know that it is God, and always has been God, who opens our eyes to the light of truth regardless in what age we live. “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Cor. 4:6)
My first “encounter” with Orthodoxy came in the air over Alaska. My father was a private pilot. It was the summer of 1982. We were flying a small plane from Soldanta to Homer. At one point we flew over a small town, a village really, with simple, brightly colored buildings. My father said the town was a Russian Orthodox community. I didn’t know what that meant, but the idea of an isolated village of people who were Russian and Orthodox and here in America (remember 1982 was still the Cold-War era) fascinated and perplexed me. They were the “other” in almost every way, yet I have always wanted to go back, at ground level this time, and visit. I feel that same way now in my present studies; I am in the clouds, immersed in my world of books and web sites, looking down at the “other,” but this time I feel like I’m the other. I want to come down to earth, but I worry of what I will find, of what I might become. The fear I have is that, for superficial reasons, I would embrace and become enamored with something that is not true. The greater fear is that, because of my Protestant “indoctrination” or my pride or even just the inertia of staying with what I am comfortable, I would confront the Truth and turn away. I do not know for sure if the Orthodox Church has preserved the Tradition (and the traditions) handed down from Christ and the Apostles, but I think is probably has. I do not know if the Orthodox Church represents most fully the activity of the Holy Spirit in forming and sustaining the Church, but I think it probably does. If all this is true, what does it mean for me? What does it mean for you?
In all sincerity I want to begin this series of posts with a prayer.
O Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, Thou hast said, “Without me you can do nothing.” In faith I embrace Thy words, O Lord, and bow before Thy goodness. Help me to complete the work I am about to begin for Thine own glory: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Judaism can be carried in the arms of a single man: the Torah scrolls transported the faith during the two thousand years of the Diaspora to every continent. Similarly, Protestantism is Bible-based; a Bible in the vernacular can function as a miniature church, enabling a missionary to take the Gospel anywhere, or a believer to stay connected to his faith. But to a great extent, Russian Orthodoxy exists for its believers in its liturgy[.] ~Garrard & Garrard, Russian Orthodoxy Resurgent
The Church gives us not a system, but a key; not a plan of God’s City, but the means of entering it. Perhaps someone will lose his way because he has no plan. But all that he will see, he will see without a mediator, he will see it directly, it will be real for him; while he who has studied only the plan risks remaining outside and not really finding anything. ~Fr. Georges Florovksy
I have said before that I grew up a Baptist and later became a kind of reformed non-denominational quasi-Calvinist. My sense of Church Tradition has been to be wary of such things as Tradition. † Tradition, as I am told, is a screen that obscures Truth, a trap that lures the needy, a comfortable cloak that warms the damned. Am I right to be wary? Is there a Christian tradition, including a liturgical tradition, handed down by the apostles and the early church, which I have been shunning? Has that Tradition been preserved since the time of the first Christians? Should my understanding of Truth include both Tradition and scripture, with scripture actually being a part of Tradition? These are live questions for me. Keep in mind that for most Protestants, and especially those who are modern, evangelical, reformed or non-denominational–and especially American–early church tradition is all about when the church turned away from God and Christ and entered into a dark age, slouching towards what Luther eventually called the Babylonian captivity (or some such thing). Historical Church Tradition, according to many Christians, and according to the tradition (ironic?) that I grew up with, should be thrown out and the Bible picked up. The Apostles: Yes. The Reformers: Yes. The latest charismatic preacher (and his best-selling book): Yes. The Church Fathers: No, or more likely, “Who?” Again, am I not right?
I am gradually thinking that there might be a tradition, the Tradition, that was somewhat lost by the Church in the West, then abandoned altogether by the Reformation (especial the Radical Reformation) and its inheritors–either through ignorance or arrogance–but that it might have been preserved all along in the East. I am still very much in process on this topic. My experience with these ideas is fairly new, and I know very little about Orthodoxy; most of what I know comes from books and not participation. And I am looking for guidance; consider this post an appeal for thoughtful feedback and Socratic discourse in the pursuit of wisdom.
Deep in History
If your Bible has some maps at the back, at least one of them probably shows the missionary journeys of the Holy Apostle Paul. † What those meandering colored lines around the Mediterranean represent are the travels of a man, traveling often with other Christians, to various cities and towns, where he preached the Gospel, planted churches, made friends, established deep and meaningful relationships, lived within communities of believers, lived his life in full view of others, served and worked, ate and slept, had innumerable discussions, answered questions, dealt with doctrinal issues, taught, wrote, chastised and encouraged, and struggled. What we have in his letters represent only a tiny fraction of all that he did and said (alas). Although we can be fairly certain that most all of what he wanted to say in terms of the Gospel (the essence of what it is, what it means, etc.) is contained within his epistles (either directly or, quite often, by implication), I wish we knew more of what is not in his epistles. How did he lead and guide the Church? Was he “religious” in worship? Did he have a liturgy of some kind that he taught these early converts? Did he lead his local congregations in worship and teach them how to do “church?” Did he give them traditions? Did he give them a Tradition? The same questions go for all the Apostles and, of course, for our Lord Jesus Christ. I look to the Bible and sometimes I wonder if there is more, if the Bible does not (and was never meant to) give us the “entire picture.” I have my doubts about sola scriptura. In 2 Thessalonians 2:15 the Holy Apostle Paul wrote:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. (NKJV)
So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us. (NASB)
So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter. (ESV)
What do we know of these traditions? What do we know of the “spoken word” or the “word of mouth?” Could it be that standing firm and holding to the traditions has to do with more than continuing to believe critical doctrinal positions? If so, could it also be more than an ethic? Could these traditions have to do with liturgy and doctrine not specifically addressed in any of the epistles we have preserved for us today? Could it be that the Holy Spirit continued to grow and preserve the Church throughout those early centuries, both with scripture and with Tradition, and that the Orthodox way which seems strange to us early 21st century Americans, actually says that we are the strange ones?
We know the early church grew quickly though it was frequently persecuted. Christians carried the Gospel (in their minds and hearts) through most of the known world and churches began to spring up everywhere. And with the spread of Christianity went the Church’s liturgy. What was the liturgy passed down from the Apostles? Did they even pass one down? There must have been something. Right?
Now with that word “liturgy” comes a raft of questions and cautions for me, a child of the Radical Reformation. † When I see the elaborate liturgy of a Catholic or Orthodox church I wonder where in the Bible do they get that? The Orthodox church claims they are holding to the traditions handed down by the Apostles and their direct students/disciples, though those traditions may have taken on certain geographical and/or ethnic characteristics over the centuries. Protestants, and especially those of the Radical Reformation, take a rather skeptical view of all that. Four bare walls and a pulpit are all that are needed. In his book For the Life of the World Alexander Schmemann highlights this issue and points first to a broader concept of liturgy:
[H]e who says liturgy today is likely to get involved in a controversy. For to some–the “liturgically minded”–of all the activities of the Church, liturgy is the most important, if not the only one. To others, liturgy is esthetic and spiritual deviation from the real task of the Church. There exist today “liturgical” and “non-liturgical” churches and Christians. But this controversy is unnecessary for it has its roots in one basic misunderstanding–the “liturgical” understanding of the liturgy. This is the reduction of the liturgy to “cultic” categories, its definition as a sacred act of worship, different as such not only from the “profane” area of life, but even from all other activities of the Church itself. But this is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals–a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It meant also a function or “ministry” of a man or of a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community. Thus the leitourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. And in this very act of preparation they became what they were called to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose. (p. 25)
Schmemann then goes on to say:
Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom. The eucharistic liturgy, therefore, must not be approached and understood in “liturgical” or “cultic” terms alone. (p. 25)
Thus we can understand that liturgy is the process (the acts) of the Church becoming and being the Church. It is more than only what happens on Sunday morning, for example. On the other hand, there is what happens on Sunday morning. In some churches Sunday morning is a couple of songs and a long sermon. In others it is an elaborate, almost ritualistic, multi-faceted event. I previously described my experience at an Eastern Orthodox church. The Divine Liturgy I experienced at St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church was of that elaborate kind, totally different in virtually every way from the “liturgy” I am used to in my non-liturgical, reformed, non-denominational, quasi-Calvinist un-church. Which is right? Does it even matter? All of my background and training in Christianity says it either does not matter, or that liturgical churches–at least in the vein of the Orthodox Church–are wrong. However, I am beginning to think the Orthodox might have it right and I have been wrong.
At this point one might say that I am confusing two different ideas of Tradition. There is the tradition of how we do church and there is the influence of tradition on doing theology and Bible study. They would say that one can pick whatever “style” one wants in terms of doing church (though some would make sharp distinctions) but that the scriptures stands above all traditions and one should set or push aside any tradition and only study scripture from a blank slate. That way one can get to a more pure theology and an unencumbered understanding. I see the dichotomy, but I don’t buy it anymore. I was trained to think this way and it makes a lot of sense to me. However, I now believe the dichotomy is false, and the situation a lot more complicated than the simplistic Tradition vs. Bible scenario which is, as I see it, a bifurcation driven to some degree by historical agendas and a lack of historical understanding. Now this is a big shift for me. I would have sacked any Christian tradition in favor of the Bible, and depending on how I squint I still will, but only if a tradition clearly contradicts the Bible, which is actually rare. Consider Baptism. There are a lot of Christian traditions and corresponding debates about baptism. The Bible gives us very little by way of a clearly outlined tradition, and what it does provide can be interpreted in various ways. In that case one can either say there really isn’t a tradition, or one can accept one of the historical traditions. So what should one do? Should one decide that baptism is not that important, or that one should not bother with traditional practices associated with baptism? I am inclined at this point to consider the Orthodox perspective on baptism correct until proven wrong. I am leaning in this direction because I have become ever more convinced of the value of the historical Church. The Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman famously said:
“One thing at least is certain; whatever history teaches . . . at least the Christianity of history is not Protestantism. If ever there were a safe truth, it is this. And Protestantism . . . as a whole, feels it, and has felt it. This is shown in the determination . . . of dispensing with historical Christianity altogether, and of forming a Christianity from the Bible alone. . . . To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” †
I love that phrase: To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant. I want to be deep in history.
I believe the same perspective can be applied to liturgy. I am leaning towards the Orthodox liturgy and away from the non-liturgical un-church perspective. I think this might be critical and not merely a matter of personal choice. In this sense liturgy is more than a style, rather it speaks to the life of the Christian on the whole, including Bible study and even “being” the Church. I wonder if the tendency to disregard or easily manipulate liturgy in many of today’s churches is a response to the radical fracturing of the Christian experience and ideologies that came about because of the Reformation. I wonder if it comes from a psychological need to un-entangle ourselves from potential divisiveness over perceived non-consequential elements. But have we thrown the baby out with the bath water because we have also disregarded the first 1,500 years of church history? Are we being arrogant because we are ignorant?
Repentance, Spiritual Intellect, and the
Inclusivity of Tradition
If, as Schmemann says, liturgy is “an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals” then is a non-liturgical church, one that is based almost entirely around Bible teaching and little else, actually doing the work of a church? Teaching, especially good Bible exegesis, is critical to our Christian life, but corporate worship may be more important. Although I believe that the scriptures should have a central place in the life of the Church, I also believe that if every church in America this coming Sunday were to set their expository preaching aside and just fall on their faces in repentance and worship, that would be a good thing. Extending this I would say that it makes sense for this to happen every Sunday.
If this is true, that is, if repentance and worship are to precede, accompany, and critique our Bible study, and if Bible study is to be done as part of our corporate action of “being” the Church, then we have a here a typically non-Protestant idea of what it means for someone to “become” a Christian. It is not an intellectual assent, or even an inarticulate feeling that is still purely rational at a tacit level, rather it is a spiritual process. Rationality will play a part but only in a supporting role. Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer (one of my heroes) and an Orthodox convert, writes:
We Orthodox believe that we become Christians by imitation of Christ, the Theotokos, the Apostles, and the Saints, not through intellectual assent to dogmatic propositions. We believe that we learn Truth through Divine revelation to our spiritual intellect, not through bare reason. In other words, we do not believe in a theologically filtered faith. We believe in direct, unfiltered access to the Truth through grace, as it is revealed to us within the discipline of ascetic and sacramental struggle. (Letters to Father Aristotle, p. 17)
At this point the Protestant skeptic will wonder if this way of thinking will merely lead to a squishy kind of mystery-faith where anything goes. For the Orthodox Christian, as I understand it, there is a lot of room for wonder, personal journeys, and mystery, but there is also clear teaching on what is right doctrine and what is false doctrine. The history of the Orthodox Church is a history or fighting against heresy. According to Bishop Kallistos Ware, to an Orthodox Christian Tradition means:
. . . the books of the Bible; it means the Creed; it means the decrees of the Ecumenical Councils and the writings of the Fathers; it means the Canons, the Service Books, the Holy Icons–in fact, the whole system of doctrine, Church government, worship, spirituality and art which Orthodoxy has articulated over the ages. Orthodox Christians of today see themselves as heirs and guardians to a rich inheritance received from the past, and they believe that it is their duty to transmit this inheritance unimpaired to the future. (The Orthodox Church, 1963/1997, p. 196)
What we can see from this rather inclusive list is that for the Orthodox the Tradition/Scripture split is a false dichotomy. Scripture is a part of Tradition, along with oral teachings handed down, liturgy handed down, doctrinal understandings handed down, etc. The question for the Western Christian, like myself, is whether the Orthodox Church has truly preserved what was handed down as Sacred Apostolic Tradition. Protestantism is the Christianity of Skepticism–all that came before is considered suspect, any denomination other than one’s own is suspect, Tradition is suspect. Therefore, as a trained Protestant I find within myself that same skepticism. But should I be skeptical? Does it all really just come down to me, my Bible, and my wits? Is the stripped down, sola scriptura, sola fide, personal relationship Christianity I inherited, really God’s plan all along? Or have I been missing something important and critical?
Where does this leave me, child of the Radical Reformation, inheritor of the Protestant ethos? I confess deep reservations about so much of my Christian upbringing and training. I find the modern American version of Christianity to combine many non-Christian elements with a too-sparse version of faith. I think it’s possible that Protestants have taken away from the Gospel and that Catholics have added to it–though these days I find Catholicism more interesting than Protestantism. I am most intrigued by Orthodoxy though. However, I cannot yet say in the affirmative one way or the other. I am too much a ponderer. I tend not to be impulsive. It takes me a long time to make decisions. I can also be a Romantic. So I will continue to think about this. But I am more and more coming to realize that it’s not about me. It’s about God and the story He is telling. If God is trustworthy, if His Spirit is still working in the hearts of men, if Christ still remains the head of His Church, then I want to enter fully into that story, have that kind of heart, and walk unhesitatingly through the doors of that Church. I must be the kind of person who accepts God at His word and on His terms, or I am undone.
But God is God, and we are human; and so, while he posses us, we cannot in the same way posses him. (Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, p. 22)
† I am not sure when I should and should not capitalize the word “tradition.” I’m sure there is an easy answer, but it eludes me for now. So, don’t try to understand my choices in this post, they will be confusing.
† I am used to referring to this great apostle as merely Paul, as though he were a good friend, and I want to consider him a friend. I can hardly wait to meet him some day. On the other hand, as I study Orthodoxy, I find that my casualness–and the casualness of our American society–may not properly show deference, or even understand how and when to do so. In other words, we no longer know how to venerate, or if we do know we do not show proper respect as we should. The Orthodox, however, know how to venerate. I want to know Paul as a friend, but I want to show proper respect. When I see him at some future date I want to fall on my face before him and let him be the one who tells me to rise. Even this simple idea is almost laughed at in a culture that so desperately needs to equalize all that it finally reduces all. That is why the title “Holy Apostle” may sound strange to our ears, but also why I think it is a good thing to use it more.
† By Radical Reformation I mean those of a reformed bent, but taking the first Reformation, or Magisterial Reformation (that is of Luther, Calvin, Zwingly), to its logical conclusions. In other words, faith is seen as almost an entirely private affair, Bible study as personal interpretation, and the Gospel being primarily about avoiding Hell and going to Heaven. There are countless variations on these themes and, even within denominations (Baptist for example), there are innumerable subtleties of doctrine and philosophies of ministry. The Radical Reformation took the Magisterial Reformation and merely pushed it further away from Catholicism. For the Orthodox Christian the Magisterial Reformation was a kind of second or double apostasy; the Great Schism of 1054 being the first and the Magisterial Reformation being the second. In these terms the Radical Reformation can be then seen as Apostasy 2.5. This is the Christianity in which I grew up.
In my previous post I said that I am a kind of “by default” post-modernist, that it is the sea in which I swim, and that I love aspects of it, but that I also loath it. My desire, as I said, is to strip away all the post-modern garbage and get to the Truth. I was reminded of a post I wrote a while back on another blog about this post-modern sea we swim in. I am re-posting it here.
We have learned to trust the photographic image. Can we trust the electronic image? With painting everything was simple. The original was the original, and each copy was a copy – a forgery. With photography and then film that began to get complicated. The original was a negative. Without a print, it did not exist. Just the opposite, each copy was the original. But now with the electronic, and soon the digital, there is no more negative and no more positive. The very notion of the original is obsolete. Everything is a copy. All distinctions have become arbitrary. No wonder the idea of identity finds itself in such a feeble state. Identity is out of fashion.
~Wim Wenders, 1989
The following screengrabs are from Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989). They are all of images within images, and represent/re-present places within places and ideas within ideas.
My mind wanders over these images and then wanders beyond them, both outside their frames and to my own presuppositions and fetishes, and I think of Baudrillard’s quote:
It is perhaps not a surprise that photography developed as a technological medium in the industrial age, when reality started to disappear. It is even perhaps the disappearance of reality that triggered this technical form. Reality found a way to mutate into an image.
Of course Baudrillard is wrong if we take him literally. Reality has not disappeared. But Baudrillard is right, as all postmodernists are, that the way we understand reality is heavily mediated for us (and by us) to the effect that reality, or “reality”, would seem to be an image created for us, is an image presented to us, is an image we carry with us, is an image we remember, and is an image we create. And, as an image is worth a thousand words, or a million, and therefore images are stories, fragmented or otherwise, connected and intersecting with other stories, stories referencing other stories, images referencing other images, we can apparently say all is reference. With Wenders we have the added question of the ever changing and never original (or always original) electronic image coupled with the question of what is fashion.
I suppose this blog plays a part in how I mediate the world for myself. I write for an audience, largely imaginary, but I also write for myself. Subconsciously, and maybe sometimes consciously, I write so that I can understand the world and my place in it. In this sense I can say that I have my take on reality. But the question is, are all distinctions truly arbitrary? And can this notion apply beyond the world of images to the rest of life?
So some degree Wender’s position hearkens back to his explorations in such films as Paris Texas and Wings of Desire. In those films we see characters struggling to communicate across great barriers (physical, psychological, spiritual) with those whom they love, or believe they love. In Wings of Desire the barrier is the difference between the world of human beings and the world of angels. The film’s story revolves around the idea that to become fully human one has to give up being merely an observer and enter in, that is, to immerse oneself in the tangible messy world we humans call reality. To cross that chasm is to take a leap of faith.
But is faith a leap? In the so-called Western/Christian tradition the word faith has a lot of gravity. Faith is one of those words, like love and happiness, whose meaning we all know and yet can never seem to finally pin down. For many the word has precisely to do with some kind of existential or spiritual leap. And for some that leap is a leap into the unknown or the unsure, or even the absurd. Interestingly, when we read the word faith used by the early Christian writers, such as the Apostles Paul or Peter or John, it is, in fact, the ordinary Greek word for belief. It does not appear that the Apostle’s intentions were to convey any idea of a leap of faith, or of faith being a kind of spiritual ecstasy. For what I can tell they were merely telling others to continue to believe what they have heard about Jesus because it is true, and that they can know it is true because the Apostles were eye witnesses.
Which brings us back to Notebook on Cities and Clothes and the idea of mediation and its relationship to truth. The fact is we are immersed in a world of images, and we seem to understand our world more and more in terms of those images rather than words, and those images are increasingly potentially untrustworthy. We are also in a world in which, while many of the barriers between people and cultures still remain, we are intersecting more and more with an increasingly broader scope of people(s) and a multiplicity of voices. Which means that we live in a world of references, that is, a world in which everything begins to reference something else and is built upon other references.
Maybe no other living filmmaker has more fun with playing with references than Quentin Tarantino. Part one of Death Proof immerses the viewer in a 1970s pastiche, full of faux antiquing of the film, samples from 1970s films, and stylistic choices right out of now classic B-movie road and slasher films. The film is designed to draw attention to itself. Tarantino winks at the audience and the audience winks back, along with the occasional high-five and an “oh yeah!” If a drinking game were devised for Death Proof, where viewers had to down a shot for every meant-to-be-obvious filmic reference, players would die of alcohol poisoning after ten minutes.
Examples include this appropriated “restricted” card from the early days of the MPAA rating system:
And this created title that looks like it came directly out of an early 1970s Disney film starring you know who:
Other examples include faux scratches and dust on the film and numerous jump-cuts that simulate a worn out film jumping in the projector gate because of splices and damaged sprocket holes.
But what is so fascinating is that Tarantino is not making a 70s film. He is making modern film. Consider that while the characters seem to live and play in a archetypal film of a previous era, and while the film makes a point of looking aged and worn out, characters still drive modern cars and use cell phones – like Jungle Julia below.
And yet, I doubt many viewers found this disconcerting, or even noticed, because there are no longer any meaningful distinctions (apparently). For a director like Tarantino there are no boundaries between films or genres or eras, there is only the magnificent cloth of cinema where every film participates in the weave, connecting and intersecting in the psychic playground cinephilia. For Tarantino, I would argue, faith is not a belief in what is true, but in what is cool and can be appropriated. And cool is another word for fashion.
In such a world where does one find one’s identity? Might one say that we are all only references built up from other references? That is the postmodern perspective, and it is the current version of “God is dead.” But is it true? I would say no. Ultimately there is no such world of only references, and we do not live our lives as though such a world were true. Wisdom would say one should always recognize the potential fallibility of our sacred ideas, but we are all creatures of faith, and faith knows there is a final reality that, at least, haunts us. Maybe, as we are immersed more and more in images, so increases the haunting.
But any man of sense would remember that the eyes are doubly confused from two different causes, both in passing from light to darkness and from darkness to light; and believing that the same things happen with regard to the soul also, whenever he sees a soul confused and unable to discern anything he would not just laugh carelessly; he would examine whether it had come out of a more brilliant light, and if it were darkened by the strangeness; or whether it had come out of greater ignorance into a more brilliant light, and if it were dazzled with the brighter illumination. Then only would he congratulate the one soul upon its happy experience and way of life, and pity the other; but if he must laugh, his laugh would be a less downright laugh than his laughter at the soul which came out of the light above. (The Republic, Book VII, Plato, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, p. 316)
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him (Gospel of St. John 1:4-10, NKJV)
All permutations of Christianity reside within (or in connection with) a tradition, or multiple traditions, sacred and/or secular. Tradition(s) guide and shape us and our beliefs. Some are formal and highly visible, others almost deny their own existence. Some are really a combination of several traditions, such as the modern American mega-church that combines post-industrial consumerism with scientific programmatic management with marketing psycho-demographics with late-Radical Reformation go-as-you-please performance-worship and individualistic personal Bible interpretation. Whatever it is, every Christian is in, or is influenced by at least one Christian-historical tradition, if not several, including non-Christian traditions.
Many of us have had the experience of moving from one tradition to another, each time believing we have come from a form of darkness into a new light, or from a lesser light to a more brilliant light. With so many competing traditions, each claiming to provide the Truth, each with its own interpretation of scripture or method of interpretation, each with its understanding of what “church” means, it might make sense to strip away all traditions and start with a blank slate. But we can’t really do that very well. Even the lone-wolf Bible interpreter will be caught up in tradition, the only questions being which one(s) and is he able/willing to see it? A third question is whether he is able to account for it adequately in the the pursuit of Truth?
I am bound up with traditions. I embrace some, even without knowing it much of the time. I kick at some and I am baffled by others. I want to know if there is a Tradition from this sea of traditions, a “version” of Christianity, that stands above the others. Is there a normative Christianity that stands apart from the modern, consumer oriented, smorgasbord of christianities that compete for our attention today, and also stands apart from the historical rending that still ravages Western society as the result of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation?
I have a very limited and unformed mind. I am not very smart and certainly not well educated. I will never solve the questions above. But I still must examine myself and ask what is it that I believe? Where do I begin? What follows is a highly personal attempt at coming to terms with some foundational assumptions on Tradition that continue to shape my life, my approach to studying scripture, believing doctrine, and being a Christian. I look for your insights and observations to help me sort this out. It is likely that my speculations are full of hubris and in dire need of correction. I pray that God will lead me to the truth.
The gag reflexive, or what comes
I am a post-modernist. I don’t mean that I claim or cling to post-modern ideals or philosophy, but I am like a fish in the post-modern sea. You are too. If I am honest with myself I have to admit that I love the personal freedom that post-modernism promises, and I loath it. The fact is, there are some true things in post-modernism, but there is a lot of hopelessness, darkness, and fear. What I long for–and this longing is exacerbated by the “Christianity” that I have been in for a long time–is to strip away all the post-modern garbage and get to Truth. I want that Truth to have legs, to be true intellectually, but also true in practice. I want to be connected to Truth. I want Truth to be ultimate, ancient, for all time, practical and very impractical. I want what I do to have meaning and to be linked to others and what they do. I don’t want a truth that is popular, fashionable (or fashionably un-fashionable), relevant, seeker friendly, or formulaic. I want the Truth that is the Truth of God, that confounds the wise of this world, that is foolish. If I get to the Kingdom of God I want to recognize the Apostles, I want to know Jesus, I want to feel profoundly at home. I also want to trust the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. I want to know that humans are sinners but that the Spirit is still working in the hearts and minds of men to animate the Church, and always has been.
These are a lot of wants. I am selfish, I know. I focus on myself a lot–I’ve been trained to do just that by my Reformed Protestant training, but I can’t blame my training entirely. I am a sinner. I don’t want to want so much, or be so selfish, or to focus so much on myself. And I don’t want to have to figure it out so much. I want to trust God. I have been on a journey to sort this out, to seek God and His Church, to be a part of the Church, to just rest–post-modernism is exhausting. Then I find the Orthodox Church. How strange. What do I do with Orthodoxy? Is it like the reformed Protestantism with which I am familiar? Not at all. Is it like the Catholic Church? No. Is it foreign? It seems that way sometimes. And it claims the deep roots of Truth as it claims both Authority and Tradition. It is the most ancient church in Christianity. How do I approach it?
The last thing I want to do is claim understanding of the Orthodox Church. I am looking in from the outside. I have very limited intellectual and spiritual capabilities. But I want to sort out my thoughts. I need to look at its claims, especially on Tradition and Authority. But first I need (it’s my habit to assume this need) to examine myself a bit, for I am a child of the Radical Reformation (it is another sea in which I swim) and my eyes are not yet accustomed to the candle-lit rooms of Orthodoxy.
First I want to look at reasons why I might react negatively to some of the claims and even the “aesthetic” of the Orthodox Church. I admit this is a wholly personal project and the issues and reasons that make sense to me may not be the primary ones for others. I pray that God will grant me wisdom in this pursuit.
Sometimes I wonder if Americans did away with having a king so they could make fun of their leaders. We have a tradition of lampooning authority in this country. It is a tradition that is deeply ingrained into our psyches. It is as easy as breathing air for us. On the one hand this makes sense, especially from a Christian perspective. We are all equal in God’s eyes, so we believe, and it rings true for most of us. The president of a country or a company, the headmaster of a school, the captain of a team, all have to comes to terms with God in the same way as we all do. In this way we “see through” the pretense of uniqueness that surrounds the mighty. The question is that while we know the big picture, that we all stand before God equally in need of His mercy, does this equality imply a disregard for authority and position? Are we not to show deference and even reverence for those in unique positions–leader, captain, professor, pastor–or are we to think those positions are meaningless except in terms of mere functionality? The Apostles and their successors were sometimes run out of town (or killed) because they preached doctrines the local authorities did not like. Americans, on the other hand, would run the Apostles and their successors out of town merely because the Apostles claimed authority. And yet, are we not made to need authority? Did not God make us to be beholden to authority? Do we not crave leaders? I am inclined these days to think my anti-authority streak, which I have inherited from my culture and maybe from my sinful heart, is a symptom of anti-human thinking. I worry that Protestantism has turned cynical skepticism into a kind of virtue, and therefore is no longer able to see it as cynical skepticism. Is this true? If so, could this be part of the fallout of the Reformation where so many interpretations of scripture have led to thousands of differing traditions? Is our deep anti-authoritarian streak a defensive reaction to the troubled sea in which we swim? I believe the Apostles would be deeply concerned with our anti-authority tendencies. Am I right?
Against Tradition/Against History
In a similar way Americans do not like Tradition(s) unless they are strictly personal. This includes Tradition as a deposit of beliefs handed down, as a way of interpretation, and as the way one does things. Look at the way our innovative business culture has thrived over the decades. We do not want to accept what came before, we want what is new, we want the next thing, we believe in progress. Americans generally have very poor knowledge of history. That’s because we don’t need to know much about the past. We aim for the future–and we will get there because we have pluck. I wonder how much of this kind of anti-traditionalism was born out of the Reformation. What I find interesting is that the Reformation did away with Tradition by creating a plethora of competing traditions. Growing up I would deride or be deeply skeptical of any tradition other than my Baptist one, yet I held firm to that tradition, neither questioning or challenging it. Do not humans need Tradition? Did not God sanction Tradition by giving Israel a tradition? Can we say that He gave them something in tune with their nature? I believe our need for Tradition ultimately trumps our skepticism of Tradition whether we want it to or not. We might overthrow any Tradition handed to us, but then we create new ones of our own, in our own image. Is this not typical of us, especially of Americans? And as with authority, are my anti-Tradition inclinations anti-human? There is an old Russian proverb that goes something like: Dwell on the past and lose an eye, forget the past and lose both eyes. How blind are we today? My experience tells me that modern American Christians are among to most blind. Would not the Apostles agree? Wouldn’t they see Tradition as critical? Am I right?
Writing in 1976, Francis Schaeffer looked at the world around him, at where that world had come from, and where it stood in the mid 1970’s after all the turmoil of the 1960’s. He said:
Some young people began in 1964 to challenge the false values of personal peace and affluence, and we must admire them for this. Humanism, man beginning only from himself, had destroyed the old basis of values, and could find no way to generate with certainty any new values. In the resulting vacuum the impoverished values of personal peace and affluence had comes to stand supreme. And now, for the majority of the young people, after the passing of the false hopes of drugs as an ideology and the fading of the New Left, what remained? Only apathy was left. (How Should We Then Live, pp. 209-210)
Schaeffer goes on to say:
After the turmoil of the sixties, many people thought that it was so much the better when the universities quieted down in the early seventies. I could have wept. The young people had been right in their analysis, though wrong in their solutions. How much worse when many gave up hope and simply accepted the same values as their parents–personal peace and affluence. (ibid, p. 210)
More than three decades later this apathy compliments our anti-traditionalism, blinding us to the profound Truth contained within the history of the Church. Still, apathy cannot remain and, increasingly, many are beginning to look beyond their immediate culture to ancient practices for meaning. The trouble with this movement is that, without a historical basis, without an understanding of the purposes of authority and tradition, it will likely produce an eclectic Christianity with questionable dogma and a top-heavy aesthetic balancing on a feelings-based humanism masquerading as “deep spirituality.” In some corners we are already there.
There is another trap regarding apathy we can fall into. We can determine we will not let apathy rule us. So we create emotion-filled activities in order to manufacture an “on fire for Jesus” experience. We try to stay always on the mountain top, always with that “high” that tells us we are close to God. What we end up with is a very personal kind of faith that measures itself more against how we feel rather than Truth.
We have an idea of the noble savage. It comes from Rousseau, was filled out by the Enlightenment, and is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. On the one hand we love technological progress and modern society, but on the other hand we want to be free of all that, to have man be free of cultural norms, free of rules, free of others. In our pursuit to free ourselves we have created savages without nobility. Remove culture and we get unruly children. Culture is discipline in light of beauty. Now consider a well tended garden. It will be lush with life. It will be beautiful and thriving. Talk to the gardener or, better, watch the gardener at work, and one discovers that a great amount of work went into shaping, weeding, pruning, guiding, feeding, etc., that garden. Correctly prune a tree and it grows full and produces better fruit. Let the tree grow wild and it becomes ragged and the harvest is poor. There is a similarity when it comes to human beings. Our characters bloom when tended to properly in the pursuit of virtue. When it comes to Christianity we in the West have inherited a concept of faith that is personal to the detriment of the corporate, which is to say the detriment of Tradition. You shall know a tree by its fruits, and this the one of the fruits of the Reformation. This personal faith is a faith that typically seeks to way of least resistance, seeks the milk and not the meat. First, we might say that Truth is Truth, but then we drink the water of our American culture and live like Truth is really a personal matter, a matter of choice and preference. Second, we gather as Christians in temporary churches, seeking communion with other individuals who, like ourselves, have their own personal christianities. Strange how often we apply the “rule” of not talking religion even when in church. But because we do not embrace either Tradition or Authority, our faiths (individual faiths rather than a unified faith) grow wild and unwieldy. If we are offered Tradition and Authority we turn away. We do not want to be “shackled” thus. All the while our free and unfettered faith grows ragged and the harvest is poor. This is the state, I believe, of much of American Christianity; a state that hindsight can predict beginning from the sixteenth century. Is Christianity too important to be left up to each individual, or is it so existential that we really have no other option?
Against Funny Hats & The Diminishing
The Baptist preachers I grew up with wore fine suits. They dressed like bankers and successful salesmen. Today many evangelical preachers are far too hip to wear suits. They wear faded jeans, un-tucked shirts, sport goatees and sometimes tattoos. They may even hold a paper cup of coffee when they preach. I am not a fan of the fine suit, but the current trend, which is a hole-hearted embrace of our broader cultural trends, is an aesthetic move away from both the nobility of man and the glory we ultimately seek. This trend stands as one example of how modern American evangelical Christianity (as inheritors of the Reformation) is in radical contrast to the ancient, un-seeker-friendly Orthodox Church. What one finds in an Orthodox Church is a constant pointing to the glory of God, to the beauty of the Gospel, to the nobility of man though he be a sinner. American culture tends to make fun of Tradition and Authority, and we also make fun of what we call the “trappings” of those things. Those of the Radical Reformation, who only need four walls and a pulpit, find the smells and bells of Orthodoxy (and high-church Protestant and Catholic churches for that matter) to be quaint, possibly ludicrous, and even wicked. Could it be, however, that there is some confusion? Look at the religious and liturgical instructions God gave to the Israelites. Was God placing on them a burden from which we have freed ourselves, or was God, being the designer/creator of man, giving them something that coincided with their needs as creatures? Can it be that the “costumes” worn by Orthodox priests (presbyters) say sometime important about the nature of our souls? If we do away with most all formality (other than sitting quietly while the preacher preaches) do we do away with something more profound and deep within our very design? Is it possible that in our desire to correct our tendency to get caught up in the externals at the expense of the internal that we wrongly trashed the external, claiming it was the problem, rather than deal with the real problem? Is that not why we are still focused on the external (hipster preacher with faded jeans and coffee in hand) rather than the glory of God and the nobility of man?
Humanity lost in Humanism, or the
Will to be God
On December 5, 1931 began the total destruction of the cathedral of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Moscow.
This massive undertaking began under orders of Joseph Stalin so as to make way for a new temple to Communism: the Palace of the Soviets, which was, ironically, never constructed for lack of budget. Instead, a swimming pool was built on the spot. After the fall of Communism the pool was destroyed and the cathedral was rebuilt bigger than before.
Why do I bring this up? For two reasons. One is that persecution has never destroyed Christianity. Many Christians died under Soviet domination, but it was the Soviets who finally failed. In the end it turns out that Christianity was there all along, adapting to its social context, keeping its traditions and its Tradition, and flourishing, with great difficulty at times, yes, but still vibrant. (As an aside: I remember as a boy hearing that Russian Christians often prayed for the Church in the West because they saw us going the way that affluent societies go. I was nonplussed. I only now understand what that meant.) It is not the existence of outward grandeur, for example a great cathedral, that preserves the Christian faith. Christianity flourishes because of the working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the Spirit and the Spirit has never left, has always been active, guiding the church in its faith and its traditions. Human beings are sinners and make a lot of mistakes, but the Church, with all its human flaws, continues and even flourishes.
Secondly, I see the destruction of the Christ the Savior Orthodox Church as being somewhat analogous to the rejection of Tradition by some corners of Protestant Christianity. In fact, this act is not unlike the destruction brought about by the Reformation. You see, Stalin’s problem was not that he bought into a particular economic system, or even a bad form of government. Stalin’s problem was pride. He made himself equal with God. The Soviets thought it quite natural and appropriate to destroy that church. In contrast, the Reformers were men of God. They saw real problems with the Church–which, for them, was the Catholic church (the Orthodox Church never went through a Reformation). However, I am struck more and more by how the Reformation looks , more like a rebellion and not about reforming the Church. I see Erasmus as a reformer. I see Luther, et al., as being a revolutionary, and with all revolutions comes destruction and unintended consequences. But I also see the Reformation as being less about the correct interpretation of the Bible, as it still claims, and more about placing man at the center. I have always loved that famous scene where Luther gives his “here I stand” speech. However, that speech (or at least that famous quote) was all about himself, he was the focus and not God. He asks for God’s help, and he points to the scriptures, but only in terms of his own interpretation and conscience. What we have is a movement away from Church authority to human authority, but this movement threatens to turn sola scriptura into a merely Christianized version of “man is the measure.” As I understand it, the Orthodox Church would have looked at that and wondered why they were even having the debate, not because the questions raised were not important, but because the real problem was elsewhere. Have we in the West inherited a false dichotomy?
Hesitating towards a conclusion
All these positions are part of my psyche. I have a strong anti-authority streak. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. I am deeply skeptical of any tradition and I prefer ones of my own making. I tend to be apathetic. I don’t want to be cultivated in that I don’t want to be pruned. I am fearful of religious garb and, though I think highly of the idea of human nobility, I tend to like the false noble savage concept. And finally, I say God is number one, but I live my life with myself on the throne. Though I know each of these positions are wrong I cannot make myself completely deny them, at least I cannot remove them from my psyche. I also think these positions are part of the Christianity I inherited. If that is so, then I think that Christianity is possibly wrong; not entirely without truth, of course, but still deeply wrong in some critical ways.
Could it be that the Protestant rebellion that has so formed my life should be rejected, not because it’s critiques of 16th century Catholicism were wrong, but because it fundamentally lacked humility? Have I inherited that lack of humility and called it being a good Christian, a reformed Christian? Should I reject the Western rift, the +a/-a of the Reformation/Counter Reformation, and look to an earlier and non-Western Church? Should I look East and change my views on authority, tradition, et al? I cannot say. What are your thoughts? Is there a conclusion in all this?