Today I begin a series I call Ancient Faith Continued. I chose that title with a purpose.
- At the most basic level, “Ancient Faith” refers to a radio program I recently appeared on to discuss how the church responds to gay marriage and the culture wars. I wanted to “continue” what I said there by addressing some questions I was told to prepare for but did not have time to discuss.
- At a deeper level, “Ancient Faith” invokes the modern nickname for the Orthodox Church, and “Continued” points to the way I think about its relationship to culture. This raises questions of about the way I think about the Tradition (i.e. the scriptures and traditions of the Orthodox Church).
I have met a lot of Orthodox Christians who see the Tradition as an unchanging deposit. They basically apply a naive fundamentalist biblical literalism to the Tradition of the Orthodox Church (“Tradition” with a “big-T” in the Orthodox Church refers to the Bible, creeds, rituals, dogmas, and diverse opinions of ancient theologians). For them, “the Truth” was delivered once in history, its meaning is clear, and thus our theology is unchanging and unambiguous.
I disagree with this view. That does not mean I am a “liberal” theologian. I do not think that Tradition and culture are two “texts” with more or less equal weight. The Tradition is not fixed, but neither is it in constant, ambiguous flux. I see the Tradition more like a life-giving stream. It maneuvers through history, swinging sometimes this way and sometimes that in response to its place in the world at a particular point and time. For me, the Tradition is not nebulous, but it is nimble.
We are caught up in that stream right now. We have a pretty good sense of where we have been, which gives us some indication of where we are going, but the exact “shape” of our destination and when we will get there are not entirely clear. I think that is why Fr. John Meyendorff said we have a “living tradition.” The Tradition is not an artifact of the past because it is where we live. The church is its tradition.
To see Tradition as a fixed and fully knowable “thing” is to live in intellectual dishonesty, for it requires pretending that the way we view tradition is not informed by our moment in history. It is to pretend that we look at doctrine in the exact same way as our spiritual ancestors.
It is also not very Orthodox. The Tradition is about God, and the ideal way of knowing God in the Orthodox Church is to unknow God. We strive for apophasis, which is the experience of God as mystery. This does not mean God is irrational or that we should be irrational. It means God is mystery. Therefore the Orthodox Christian must always destroy her own intellectual idols. That is why I think fundamentalist views of the Tradition are unOrthodox.
This matters because two believers may agree that theology should adhere to the teachings and traditions of the church, but that does not necessarily mean we are talking about the same thing. While that may not affect where we end up in terms of our theological opinions, it does affect how we get there. Fundamentalism knows the answers before we ask the questions, so it tends not to be very open to any serious dialogue. For a fundamentalist, conversation can always only be debate.
To put it another way, for me, I cannot think of the Tradition as a deposit because I do not think I have faith in a set of assertions. I think faith means to trust in that for which I hope, which means it is a kind of love. The Orthodox ideal is apophasis because theology is nothing more than to love God with the intellect. Truth is that which we do not understand but love anyway. That is why I think we should never treat the Tradition as if it is something everyone can understand if they only think about it rationally. The way we think about the Tradition must always unthink itself because God is love, and love is infinite. God is always an undiscovered country.