I was in the library last month, looking for something from Fr. Dumitru Staniloae when I came across a book by David N. Bell. It’s title immediately caught my attention: Orthodoxy: Evolving Tradition. I had been thinking about what it means to be a modern member of the so-called “Ancient Faith” (read more here), so I picked it up. It reads a lot like an introduction to Orthodoxy, except that it is more frank about our warts than some other primers.
One of the things I loved about Bell’s book was that he constantly stresses the internal diversity within Orthodoxy. The church is not monolithic either in terms of belief or practice. This gets personal for me in the last chapter of his book.
…Tradition can all too easily degenerate into ultra-conservatism, but even if it does not, and even where creative change takes place, it tends to take place very slowly–too slowly for many people. Those, therefore, who wish to see the ordination of women to the priesthood (not just to the diaconate) may not find themselves at home within the Orthodox tradition. Those who wish to see the sacramental blessing of gay and lesbian relationships or a more liberal attitude to divorce will likewise find more sympathetic ears elsewhere.
On the other hand, there is much more room for individual opinions within Orthodoxy than many people may think. Orthodoxy has never attempted to legislate the Christian life to the same degree that Roman Catholicism has (though even there, what is actually taught and what is actually done seem to be growing ever further apart), and, … the decisions of the Church are better seen as sign-posts pointing the way rather than walls imprisoning the conscience. In some matters, of course, one is legally bound by ecclesiastical law, but even there there can be considerable latitude. Legally, for example, an Orthodox who marries in a non-Orthodox church is barred from receiving the sacraments until he or she remarries in an Orthodox church. … In practice, the rule is sometimes relaxed. Much depends on the priest, parish, and jurisdiction.
This is not to suggest that an Orthodox Christian can deny the Trinity, doubt the Incarnation, and spit on the saints while remaining wholly Orthodox. It is to say that he or she may have doubts about the need for sacramental confession, or disagree with the Church’s stand on the ordination of women, or see no problem with instrumental accompaniment to the Divine Liturgy, or wholeheartedly reject the Pauline acceptance of the institution of slavery, and still remain solidly within the Church. Orthodoxy seeks to persuade rather than enforce, and, unlike Roman Catholicism, it does not try to silence its more creative theologians. …
Orthodox Tradition, therefore, is more elastic than it may appear, and Orthodoxy in no way seeks to stifle the intelligence, creativity, and conscience of the individual believer.
Orthodoxy can sometimes feel like an uninviting place for those of us who call ourselves “theologians,” even when we make clear that we are not representing the “official” view of our hierarch’s, only our understanding of the Tradition. I have encountered more than one individual who falsely believes that the Orthodox Church speaks with one voice. Thus, I take encouragement from Bell’s words for several reasons.
They remind me that I am still Orthodox. I was drawn to Orthodoxy because it tended to limit its dogmas. There is a lot of wideness in our 2,000 year tradition.
They remind me to be humble. I like that our theology moves slowly. Whatever flashes of insight I might think I have at any given moment are always out-shined by the 2,000 year of inspired genius that has gone before me. I need to peer deeply into that blinding genius before I say what I think I see.
They remind me that the church is not out to stifle my conscience. There have always been, and will always be, those who attempt to use the Tradition like a mallet to beat out the “imperfections” in the church, but the beauty of Orthodoxy is that our tradition is more organic and pastoral than systematic and juridical. Most of our creeds and canons are not designed to root out heretics but include as many as possible within the fellowship of Christian love.
In a way, the Orthodox Church is a circle that always inverts itself, making its circumference its center. It can be a little disconcerting when the ground beneath one’s feet always shifts a bit (without ever disappearing), but faith finds little fertile ground in rock-solid certainty.
Do you find comfort in Bell’s words, or do you think he leaves too much up to the individual?