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Orthodoxy in the Contemporary World

By Bishop THOMAS (Joseph) and Peter Schweitzer

In the contemporary worldview, nothing is so prized as progress and change. They are so highly regarded that calls for change and progress are even heard within our one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Those who call for progress and change within the Church often demand change for change sake so that the world will be more comfortable with the Church. These demands often include that the Orthodox Church modify or completely abandon the traditional fasting periods, shorten the divine services, and become more "open" and accommodating on moral issues such as marriage, gender identity, and human rights.

These winds of change and progress are undoubtedly a result of contemporary man's embrace of Enlightenment thinking in which man replaces God as the ultimate arbiter of truth and human life. Yet, our Christian Tradition tells us that such notions are fundamentally flawed. The flaws concern two fundamental misconceptions of Sacred Tradition and the ascetical and mystical character of the Christian life.

Unlike human customs and traditions, Sacred Tradition is revelatory. It is something we receive from Almighty God. In saying that Sacred Tradition is a Divine revelation, I mean that it was given to men by God, whether directly, by the God-man, or indirectly, through the Prophets and the Apostles. The incomparable superiority of Sacred Tradition is due to its revelatory character. This cannot be said of human traditions which originate from the mind of man.

Constantine Cavarnos writes in his work "Orthodox Tradition and Modernism":

The term "Tradition" is used by the Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers in a broader sense to indicate the written Divine
word, namely the Old Testament and the New Testament, and also the unwritten Divine word of the Apostolic preaching, which is not written in Holy Scripture, but was preserved in the Church and was written in the Proceedings of the Synods and in the books of the God-bearing Fathers.

The fact that Sacred Tradition is essentially revelatory, originating from the triune God, means that it must be received and then preserved without addition or subtraction. The following words of Saint Athanasios the Great are characteristic of the line which the Fathers deliberately and persistently followed: "I have taught according to the Apostolic faith handed down to us by the Fathers, devising nothing outside it" (Epistle to Serapion 33; PG 26:605C).

Professor Carvarnos concludes by stating,

The Orthodox always regarded the unchanging persistence of the Orthodox Church in Sacred Tradition as her boast. On the contrary, the heterodox—with exceptions, especially in recent times—regarded this persistence as a sign of decline, as a sign
of deficiency in her inner life. In particular, the Protestants hurled the reproof that the Orthodox Church is "dead" and likened her to a "petrified mummy." This demonstrates the ignorance which the heterodox customarily have about the true essence of Christianity, and shows to what degree they confuse the revealed faith with the different worldly systems, with the different human contrivances and creations. Since in the crafts and the sciences there is a continuous development and perfection,
they think that the same thing ought to happen in the Christian religion, that here too there should be a continuous revision, change, and replacement of the old by the new—in a word, "modernization." Looking at Christianity rationalistically, they misunderstand its revelatory character and demote it to the level of the systems which the mind of man has formed on the basis of reason and the observations of the five senses.

This leads me to the second fundamental flaw which is often overlooked in discussions about change and the so-called need to "modernize" the Orthodox Church. It's a flaw in understanding the true nature of things which is also revelatory and is derived from Sacred Tradition. The state of nature and the state of man were corrupted as a result of the Fall. No amount of human progress and development can change that fact. Death entered into our human reality as a result of sin. Humanity and nature itself can
only be restored through the salvific work of Jesus Christ.

Saint John Chrysostom writes, "Before the fall men lived in Paradise like angels; they were not inflamed with lust, were not kindled by other passions either, were not burdened with bodily needs; but being created entirely incorruptible and immortal, they did not even need the covering of clothing."

From the writings of St. Maximus and St. Gregory of Sinai, we learn that the first-created man possessed God-given wisdom; his mind was not impressed by imagination; his memory was not diversified but onepointed, being recollected in God. By drawing ever closer to God in love, by seeking spiritual pleasure in God rather than physical pleasure through the senses, he was to become ever more holy and spiritual, ever more in the likeness of God, ever more transformed by the Grace of God.

As God-bearing fathers and guardians of Sacred Tradition, the holy fathers describe precisely and in great detail the state of humanity prior to the Fall and the dreadful consequences that followed after it. Perhaps more importantly for our purposes, they detailed the manner in which we are to be restored to communion with God. This curative restoration was detailed in their preaching and their writings. It involves repentance and ascesis, a life-long spiritual struggle to rid ourselves of the passions and apply the salvific events of the God-man Jesus Christ whom we encounter in the Orthodox Church.

In writing about the spiritual sickness of 20th century man, Saint Justin Popovic illustrates clearly what is needed:

Is there a way out of these innumerable humanistic hells? Is there resurrection from these innumerable European graves? Is there a remedy for those innumerable deadly sicknesses? There is, there certainly is: repentance. That is the eternal message of the Gospel of the GodMan: "Repentance so that you may know the truth" (2 Tim. 2:25). Otherwise, it is not possible for anyone to believe in the all-saving Gospel of the God-man. "Repent and believe in the Gospel" (Mark 1:15). Repentance before the God-Man is the only medicine for the sin, the unique medicine for all sins, even for the greatest of sins. There is no doubt. ... European "infallible" man, European humanistic man, can only be saved through whole-hearted and all-transforming repentance before the wondrous, all-merciful, all-virtuous Lord Jesus Christ the God-man, the only Savior of the human race from all sins, from each evil, from each hell, from each devil, from each humanistic rationalism, from any of the sins which the human imagination is able to conceive. ("Reflections on the Infallibility of European Man," Orthodox Faith & Life in Christ)

What was lost in the Fall was relational. It wasn't an intellectual proposition that went awry. Our communion with Love was broken. Any call for change or progress in this regard is ultimately missing the point and a woeful underappreciation of what happened in the Garden. Any intellectual exercise or program for self-improvement that relies on man is a tragic error. Are the services long? Yes, they are, but they are intentionally so. Submitting oneself to the long services is the time-tested prescription written by those who enjoy communion with the thrice holy God as the only cure. Our hearts are divided, our intellect even more so. The long services are such so that we have the opportunity to quiet the mind and calm the stirrings of the heart so that the Divine Physician can work on us. In the Fall, our eyes were cast downward from the Almighty to earthly, perishable, corruptible things. The fasting periods and the long services are intended for us to re-focus our pleasure in God alone.

The ancient and salvific prescriptions of the Gospel and Sacred Tradition are valid to the extent to which the traditional and revealed truths concerning the nature of man are upheld. When we invert the true nature of things, man becomes God and can prescribe whatever solution deemed appropriate by the ruling authority. In this scenario, man is the measure of all things. God is not necessary. Yet, in this scenario the question remains, "what about death?" There is no technological advancement that can cure all disease, illnesses, or ultimately death. We continue to suffer, experience injustice, cruelty and oppression. The answer doesn't lie with man but with Almighty God our Creator and Savior. If we abandon God by abandoning Sacred Tradition in our beliefs and our practices, we reject the only cure for death and all the other ills that afflict us. In the words of Saint John of Damascus, ""Brethren, let us stand on the rock of faith and the Tradition of the Church, not removing the landmarks which our holy Fathers set, nor giving any place to those who want to innovate and destroy the structure of the Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of God" (Concerning Images, 3.41; PG 94:1356C).