Why Incentives Matter

When I first became Orthodox a Protestant friend of mine, a minister as it happened, noted that in becoming Orthodox I joined a pre-modern tradition in a post-modern fashion.  Simply put, I decided to submit myself to the Tradition of the Church.

For some this decision to accept the Tradition of the Church embodies within it a distancing from the same.  After all, so the thinking goes, in accepting the Tradition of the Orthodox Church rather than the Catholic Church, didn’t I assume the ability–even the right–to judge both traditions? Well maybe that is what happened psychologically, but I’m not sure that–even if it holds true–that the psychology of the decision exhausts its meaning.  Nor does the fact of human choice invalidate the objective character of the Tradition; much less does it mean that the person judges the Tradition as a master judges a servant or a teacher a student.

Rather the Tradition of the Church is that which makes human choice both possible and meaningful.

Metropolitan Hilarion in a recent speech (Address by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk Chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations to the Annual Nicean Club Dinner, Lambeth Palace, 9 September 2010) observes that unlike Protestant Christianity,  the Orthodox Church has ” a different understanding of Holy Tradition.”  He continues by quoting   It is aptly “Vladimir Lossky: ‘Tradition is the life of the Holy Spirit in the Church – the life giving to every member of the Body of Christ the ability to hear, accept and know the Truth in its inherent shining, not in the natural light of human reason.'”   To grasp the anthropological import of this it is important that we remember that the human will, as St Augustine and others have noted, is not meant for choosing between options–will I have toast or cereal for breakfast this morning–but as the faculty by which I am freely and personally in communion with God and, in God, the whole of humanity and indeed the cosmos.

To exercise my will apart from God is neither an act of freedom nor of self-expression.  Rather it is to cripple the will and degrade the self binding it that which is transitory.  Both personal experience and psychological research illustrates this.  Every discrete choice has the consequence of limiting in someway my ability to act.  Sitting here writing means I can’t be watching television.  Yes, the example, like the choice of what to eat for breakfast is trivial.  Trivial or not thought, it illustrates the point that human freedom and so happiness  is not found in the mere fact that I can exercise my will this way rather than that.  In fact, and again experience and research demonstrates this, the more choices I have the more unhappy and anxious I am likely to feel.

Does this mean that there should be no choice or that we should be coerced to accept the Gospel?  No of course not.  The fact that I misuse my will, does not mean my will should be violated.  It does however mean that my will must be formed so that I am able to evermore fully choose God.   Returning to an earlier post, this is why incentives matter not only in economics but also the spiritual life.  This isn’t a quid pro quo–if I do this for God, God will do that for me–but of explaining that personal freedom and self-expression that are culture rightly values are only possible in Christ.

But doesn’t this degrade the Tradition?  Doesn’t it turn it into but one more consumer option?  It may to be sure but only because the contemporary consumer culture, like all cultures, is a pale reflection of Holy Tradition.

The Acton Institute‘s Samuel Gregg in his analysis of Pope Benedict XVI‘s visit to Great Britain (Benedict’s Creative Minority) writes that “to be an active Catholic in Europe is now, …, a choice rather than a matter of social conformity.”  He continues that “This means practicing European Catholics in the future will be active believers because they have chosen and want to live the Church’s teaching.”   The irony here, and it is an irony that is as applicable to Orthodox Christians as it is Catholics, is that living the Gospel is NEVER a matter of mere social conformity–of playing along to get along–but of personal choice rightly understood.

All of this means that  Christians (and as Gregg points out not simply Christians) must do the hard work of wooing the human heart.  Along the way, as the pastoral experience of both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches illustrates, we will invariably make mistakes.  It is always tempting to try to sidestep the hard ascetical work of growing in holiness for the quick return of marketing or social coercion  or, for that prominence and  respectability.  Complicating this temptation is that it will not always be clear whether I have put my foot on the wrong path.  Gregg offers the example of Thomas More who “stood almost alone against Henry VIII’s brutal demolition of the Church’s liberty in England.”

At the time, “many dismissed his resistance as a forlorn gesture.” But when we take a somewhat longer view, “More, … , turned out to be a one-man creative minority. Five hundred years later, More is regarded by many Catholics and non-Catholics alike as a model for politicians. By contrast, no-one remembers those English bishops who, with the heroic exception of Bishop John Fisher, bowed down before the tyrant-king.”

While  More’s response was unique to his situation, his actions have a foundational quality as well.  Christians are always called to bear witness to Christ before a tyrant-king who demands our obedience  or at least silent collusion.  This fact shapes, or should shape, our understanding of why incentives matter not simply in economics but also, and more importantly, the Gospel.  The Enemy of souls offers his own inducements.

Or rather, what he offers is a parody of God’s blessings to humanity, blessings that we who are in Christ have received in abundance and which  in obedience to Christ and for the sake of our neighbor, we need to proclaim.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • Enigma_bg53

    some thoughts, Father, if you will: Choice and freedom to choose are not necessarily together. freed to be able to choose, then we might actually participate. i like it, as such, when some would accuse another of a ‘pick and choose’ the parts of the the Tradition that you like, when in doing so they do the same thing. It’s akin to following the Torah and Talmud, every line, claiming it at the least. They, as the whole of our The Tradition, are for our salvation, economy, a household caring word. It is not about how much in quantity or quality one can keep the Law or our Cannons. It’s that the Holy Spirit has placed sufficient help for us, no matter the path and prejudices we carry, in order to make sure that we are truly able and free to choose. If we choose. No juxtaposition here, the Tradition and whatever one wants to put here. Maybe, the Holy Spirit is the umbrella, the true Tradition, and from here we are guided as needed. And from here true choices are found. Maybe.

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    • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

      Timothy,

      The unspoken word among the Orthodox–and zealots on both the left and the right, religious or secular–is that we all necessarily pick and choose. None of us live the whole Tradition, that is we all of us emphasize some parts of the tradition more than others. A bit of humility, to say nothing of charity, is in order me thinks.

      In Christ,

      +FrG

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  • http://www.prudencetrue.com/ Prudence True

    Oh dear, hang with me here for a moment…

    Today I entered a new hair salon for a look (not a theological reference point, I know), and I asked a few questions. I liked the *feel* of the place, but us women are very picky about where we have our hair styled. They asked if I wanted an appointment, I paused pondering the *reasons* I should trust these strangers with my hair. I had no *concrete* information. I had not received any recommendations, and I had asked only a couple of surface questions (the price, their availability). But, I considered the *feel* I had from the woman I had met only moments ago. Did I trust this *feeling* without any *logical* reasons for this decision?

    Yes, I did.
    No this isn’t about Tradition or The Church.
    But this is free will, every moment of every day, and I made a choice. I trust this intuitive sense always. And it never fails me.

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    • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

      Prudence True,

      How true are your words–it is about free choice in response to God’s grace. As I tell my OCF students–God woos the human heart–He flirts if you will but He never imposes.

      In Christ,

      +FrG

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  • orrologion

    Critiques such as you are responding to make me wonder whether pre-modern converts (to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc.) were saved the post-modern dilemma of choice. All religions must have grown by the sword or self-interest, except for the ones that sprung to life demographically from the forehead of Zeus.

    While “I joined a pre-modern tradition in a post-modern fashion” is quippy, it’s also so self-consciously ridiculous. It’s the sort of bemused and affected distance used to place oneself over all others while condoning any choice I find preferable. That is, it’s based in pride.

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    • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

      Orrologion,

      I think your correct in your observations about how religions grew in the ancient world. Choice seems to me to be at the heart of the Gospel. Yes, some people simply allow themselves to be carried along by the culture but this to is a choice isn’t it?

      Your point about quippiness–if that’s a word–is a good one. While I don’t think my friend meant it as a criticism or reflected pride on his part (more good nature teasing and a reminder of the very point you make) I have often encountered people who respond with bemusement to my being an Orthodox Christian and a priest. And yes, I do think they do so to keep me at a distance.

      Thanks for the comment.

      In Christ,

      +FrG

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