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.
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- Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk Gives Hard-hitting, No Nonsense Address to Anglicans (mpidirect.com)
- “Orthodox bishop gives hard-hitting address to Anglicans” and related posts (the-hermeneutic-of-continuity.blogspot.com)