The Blessing and Burden of Holy Tradition

Having been caught up in other projects and deadlines, I picked up Pantelis Kalaitzidis’ Orthodoxy & Political Theology last night after several weeks’ absence. The following words reminded me of how our love for “Holy Tradition” can kill our witness.

A certain version of theology…[has] turned Tradition into traditionalism and taught us to associate the identity of the church mainly – or even exclusively – with the past, making us accustomed to an Orthodoxy that is permanently out of step with its time and history in general. In fact, Orthodox theology often suffers…from a kind of inertia with regard to participating in history and the socio-cultural context…Speaking about the church’s transforming presence and activity in society, culture, and politics is reduced to nothing more than wishful thinking.

IMG_7785Kalaitzidis goes on to juxtapose the retrospection of a stultifying traditionalism with the introspection of Orthodox eschatology. The presence and power of the kingdom of God is what first gathered the scattered church together, and it continues to unite us today. Thus we must value our past in order to face our future, but we must not insist our future be like our past. I used the word introspection to describe our eschatology because the kingdom of breaks into the church (without being the church). It speaks a word of love, judgment, and commission all at once. That word is (paraphrased), “The servant of God ___ receives the body and blood of Christ for the remission of sins and life everlasting. Amen.” The Eucharist is why we gather. It calls us to partake of the resurrected body of Christ in order that we may become the resurrected body of Christ, forcing us to face and repent of our sins, upholding us with God’s love and mercy, and commanding us to “Go!” into our daily lives, and bring the world back with us again, to make everything that we are into a gift that God uses to ready the world to receive the kingdom.

The alternative to this – one to which I fear converts often unwittingly contribute (an observation I make with great irony) – is to see the church as a refuge from modern culture. This is what Kalaitzidis (and also Florovsky and Meyendorff) describe as a false traditionalism. The greatest blessing of the church is the richness of our tradition, but it is also our greatest burden, for it can make Orthodoxy attractive for disaffected fundamentalists looking for resources to be more misogynistic, sectarian, and nationalistic than they ever could have been as Protestants. This makes our politics “wishful thinking” because we pine for glory days to which we can never hope to return, and which weren’t all that glorious to begin with. Instead of seeking realistic solutions to political challenges, we misuse the Orthodox tradition by smugly congratulating ourselves for having discovered what we are sure everybody “out there” needs.

300118861_IMG_7168But the identity of the church does not come from our past. It comes from the future. It is something that, frankly, has not yet been revealed to us, but which we use our past to try to understand. The kingdom of God judges our misogyny, sectarianism, and nationalism, because the resurrection of Christ abolishes all barriers. The kingdom demands that we love others more than we love our doctrines because the resurrection of Christ was new life for the world. We cannot look for our identity in the past because the kingdom of God is not our past. It is the future we glimpse when we gather to collectively partake of that which we hope one day to fully be – the body of Christ – a gift to the world, given for the remission of sins and life everlasting. Amen.

6 thoughts on “The Blessing and Burden of Holy Tradition”

  1. “…the identity of the church does not come from our past. It comes from the future.”

    I’m a historian and not a theologian, and I freely admit that I’m a historian because I’m not smart enough for theology, but I’m left scratching my head about this a bit for several reasons.

    First, to the extent that our identity is as a worshipping body, I would argue that it’s not entirely accurate to say our identity comes from either past or future. That’s to limit the Church to earthly time (chronos), when the Church operates on God’s time (kairos). Within the context of kairos we can talk about the Church being eschatological in nature, which I think is what you mean, but that’s not really the same thing as “the future”, as such.

    At the same time, though, there are unavoidable ways in which the Church’s identity is informed by the past and subsequently draws lines in the sand. What else is our liturgical year but the organization of the Church’s history into a series of sacred narrative cycles, putting together Scriptural events, saints’ lives, and other defining events (Ecumenical Councils, the defeat of the Avars in 626, etc.) into a regular order that expands as Christian history keeps happening? And frankly, our liturgical year is not shy about naming and shaming, about drawing distinctions on matters like doctrine — read the hymn texts for the Feast of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, for example, and see what they say about Dioscurus, Severus, and Eutyches (among others). Or the commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council and what those hymns say about Arius. And so on. The Resurrection of Christ may have abolished all barriers, but nonetheless there’s a way the Church remembers herself to have dealt with conflict, it’s probably less warm and fuzzy than some of us would like, and we have to be prepared to deal with that.

    All that said, I agree that converts have to be wary about converting because they’re running from a disagreement, rather than running to Christ, and subsequently hoping that there’s sufficient incense smoke to obscure the difference. I’ve run into my own share of people who think that because they’re the grumpiest person with a long beard and a prayer rope in the room, that means they’re right. At the same time, the need for a refuge from the rootlessness of modern culture is very real for a lot of people — so what would you have them do? How is treating the richness of our heritage as our “greatest burden” going to solve anything?

    For what it’s worth, I’ve written about this to some extent here: http://leitourgeia.com/2011/04/29/on-package-deals/

    1. “Within the context of kairos we can talk about the Church being eschatological in nature, which I think is what you mean, but that’s not really the same thing as “the future”, as such.”

      The eschaton is not chronos, but it is the “ahead of us” that is “in the midst of us.” That is what “kairos” means. I think what I am hearing you say is that the past shapes the way we are open to the future (i.e. it tells us what the signs of God’s kingdom are), and I agree with you.

  2. For a non-convert perspective on a conference that Pantelis Kalaitzidis played a big role, see:

    http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/03/contextual-or-post-patristic-theology.html

    Metropolitan Pavlos of Glyfada says at the end: “We do not deny freedom of speech in the field of Orthodox theology, but we can not accept freedom of reasoning to end up as Protestant reasoning. The organizers of the conference are required to come up with adequate explanations in order to avoid unnecessary clashes for fruitless “births.””

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