Modern Culture, Ecclesial Tradition and the Challenges We Face

by Doru Costache

There are two kinds of challenges experienced by the Orthodox in our days. Some, such as the nontraditional character of modern culture, pertain to the context in which they live. Others, such as fundamentalism, pietism and nationalism, have to do with the Orthodox themselves. In what follows I propose that at times the two kinds of challenges intersect and that, rather than construing themselves solely as under attack from the outside, the Orthodox should look into their backyard first—and from there surmise the way out of the other sort of impasses, in a traditional fashion. Nevertheless, in order to achieve that, problems should first be discerned and defined.

Perhaps simplistically put, to begin with I propose that modern Western culture is nontraditional if not downright antitraditional. Nuances do matter, but in this case I believe that my assessment holds. What I mean is that from a certain historical juncture onwards (and that moment is difficult to pinpoint; let’s just say it was a series of moments), Western culture began to abandon wisdom, the inheritance of previous generations, indeed its Christian roots. In turn, it inaugurated an era of free, axiologically unconcerned experiments in all areas. It is true that during the Middle Ages, particularly in the West, Christian culture did not perform as creatively as it did in Late Antiquity and that last beacon of European civilisation for many centuries, namely, the Byzantine world (which succumbed to its Dark Ages only under the weight of the Western banners of the cross and the Oriental banners of the crescent moon). Given this relative lack of creativity—because, in truth, the Middle Ages have been far from a time of stagnation—modernity was entitled to its disappointment. It was even more so given the Christian stubbornness, both Eastern and Western, in defending as dogmatic certain ideas of ancient science (geocentrism, the flat earth, the immobile and closed cosmos etc) and culture (imperialism, sacred languages, persecution of any bearer of different ideas etc). But together with such outdated, erroneous and at times unChristian habits, modern culture has proverbially thrown away the baby, not just the bathwater: that is, the genuinely Christian values hidden in the thickness of those dirty waters. Tradition more broadly, wisdom and especially the ecclesial tradition with its commitment to the Gospel of God, have been pushed into the shadowed cone of oblivion and irrelevance by a world construed as exclusively founded on rationalism and as beginning everything from zero, ex nihilo. The process continues still, with Christianity becoming less and less a European, Western landmark, and more a presence at the outer rim, a Third World phenomenon. Against this backdrop, the Orthodox are perceived as some odd remnant of a bygone era, when and if they are noticed at all.

But let me continue the story. Due to an ongoing shift of paradigms, during the last several centuries—the Modern Age—tradition and everything pertaining to it have been increasingly marginalised, ridiculed and disparaged. Ashamed and defeated, Christians have retreated into ivory towers and Olympian eternities, sometimes throwing ideological thunderbolts towards the world which made them dispensable. In parallel, deprived of wisdom, patience and axiological criteria, a Teen Age by all intents and purposes—careless, rushed and exuberant—modernity has performed well, proving to possess an immense creative potential. Nevertheless, modernity has ended up by suffocating the soul and mutilating the heart of humankind by way of positivist reductionism, materialism and agnosticism. It has advanced, at first triumphantly and then arrogantly, from iconoclasm to desperation, from World War to World War, from genocide to genocide, from inhumanity to more of it, from the power of science to its indiscriminate application, from unbelievable technological innovations to a progressive incapacity to handle them safely. Truth be told, the world of today is no better than the one modern culture left behind. Given its lack of geodesics in the chaos of hopelessness, which most bearers of this culture attempt in vain to navigate, the brave new world fares in fact worse. I am not a partisan of the Christian “we told you so,” yet I cannot but utter the truth that strikes us in the face, namely, that without the wisdom of tradition this world is unwell. People suffer, the environment suffers, and because it still abhors the wisdom of tradition, like any teenager, this world chases after its own tail within the labyrinth it has created out of nothing for itself. Why is the Orthodox message not heard? It is because the supposed recipient walks about like a zombie, lost in the smartness of some technological gadgets and wearing headphones that loudly play another tune.

What is interesting, however, is that after the great nineteenth century of positivist oversimplifications—the age of triumphalist reason which deplored the boredom that threatened to befall it after making the supposed last possible discoveries—the deepest certainties of modern culture together with its utopias and romantic aspirations have successively fallen under the axe of the various contemporary sciences. The universe is not simple and uniform, it is complex. Life is not pure chemistry. The human being is not reducible to the simplistic models of either the automaton or erotopathology. Trees are not longer just for logging; they are families, forests. And so on. The emergence of the new sciences has marked, indeed, the arrival of a different worldview—a new era of confluence instead of individualism, atomism, separation and dispersion. Holism and connectivity instead of reductionism and walls of division. An era of 3D instead of the 2D outlook of the previous few centuries. There is room now for a broader spectrum of the human experience, including spirituality, ethics, poetry and philosophy. Instead of cultivating the foreign methodology of the nineteenth century hard sciences, which contemporary hard sciences themselves have already abandoned, the humanities can reclaim their status and become human anew. Within this new climate, of quantum philosophy, phenomenology, postmodernism and transdisciplinarity, more and more people speak about the urgent retrieval of wisdom and tradition, in the broad sense of these words. All this is positive. This new paradigm shift makes room for us, Orthodox Christians, too. True, in some cases, the sense of urgency mentioned above coincides with attempts at resurrecting the occult together with various forms of pre- and non-Christian mysticism. And it is amazing to see how, disenchanted by the grand promises of rationalism, alongside sceptics and agnostics, there are more and more people who turn to what one would otherwise call the irrational, the soul and the heart. Perhaps troubling in some Christian quarters, all these are nevertheless symptoms of a profound thirst for something more than the utopias of reason, law giving, money making and mechanicism. However, from an ecclesial viewpoint this new iconoclastic phenomenon—namely, the trend to demolish the idols of rationalism, agnosticism and positivism—amounts to bringing modern civilisation back to the threshold of a world which we thought we left behind two millennia ago. This era of the postmodern culture remains as challenging to us Orthodox as the previous, modern one. How can we make this world, with its smart technologies and headphones, listen to us?

I am of the firm conviction that, as much as in the past, when we faced other cultural shifts—from Judaism to Hellenism, to Latinism etc—the theological mindset of the Orthodox Church, and theology as a function of the ecclesial life, are called to reexamine and redefine tradition by unveiling its genuine content and spirit, the living Gospel of God. When we face the slippery slopes of fundamentalism and relativism—the two extreme and opposite reactions to the challenges of our time—we can no longer maintain that everything that our ancestors have created in the name of the Gospel is apostolic, faultless, useful and immutable. This redefinition is required, for instance, because of the recent call to an aggiornamento in capite et in corpore by radical, relativist voices from within the Church. For such voices, belonging to theologically trained yet misguided people, tradition precisely is what caused the transfer of Christianity from the centre to the periphery in modern times. To do away with tradition would be the easy way out. They do not bother to make the necessary distinction between the apostolic, unchangeable core of the ecclesial tradition, and the accretions resulted from the embodiment of the apostolic spirit in the concrete forms of the cultures we have encountered in history. Thankfully, this revisionist trend does not have many adherents in contemporary Orthodoxy. At the other end of the spectrum, theology’s effort of redefinition is required by the proliferation of fundamentalism, pietism and nationalism, which undermine the Gospel in favour of false certainties—parallel to the Gospel of God and the ecclesial tradition, and opposite to the missionary interests of the Church. For instance, anachronism is on the rise, less educated and undiscerning Christians taking the outer shells of tradition as a pretext to refuse the world we live in, its culture, its science. As we speak, in such milieus the infinite and expanding universe is replaced by the flat world, geocentrism and young earth creationism. In some milieus, Christianity is the religion of a book or of a couple more books. Scripture itself is confused with a scientific textbook of divine dictation. False piety reduces the Gospel to a sterile, juridical, prescriptive and heartless morality. There, in those milieus, the liturgy ceases to be an event of divinehuman fellowship, becoming instead the stage on which—narcissistically—the masters of bel canto and the grammarians of the rubrics perform. Nationalism deepens the chasms of division between Churches that supposedly belong to the same ecclesial family. Flags and fanfares obscure the cross of the Lord, and with it our only common point of reference. Why is the Orthodox message not heard? It is because we are lost in our own labyrinth.

All these trends, whether relativist, revisionist, fundamentalist, nationalist or pietist, are foreign and contrary to the ecclesial tradition. They can be there, but not in the name of the Orthodox, rich, wise, balanced, discerning, spiritual and compassionate tradition. All these trends, sometimes well meant, but most times ecclesially unfounded, bring onto this side of the fence the very problems that have pushed Western Christianity to the brink of extinction, to a point of no return. These trends, particularly those related to fundamentalism, paint an image of an otherworldly Orthodox Church, paralysed and inadequate, lacking relevance for what is legitimate in contemporary quests and aspirations. For as long as it has cherished the wisdom of tradition, our Church has not been this. The fact that we are this shows that we ourselves have abandoned tradition at some point in history. Ecclesial wisdom teaches that to not be of this world (namely, to not live by low standards) does not amount to staying outside this world. Being open to eternity does not amount to anachronism. Wisdom teaches that to be within tradition is to live in the here and now according to the ecclesial criteria—it is a matter of manner, not of being elsewhere and in some other time.

Alongside the challenges posed by the shifting cultural paradigms of modernity and postmodernity, there are impasses within the Orthodox Church which require attention, not irresponsible confidence. It is the task of this generation to retrieve the ecclesial tradition in its amplitude, depth, intensity and richness. If we achieved this, not only we will be healed. Rather, we will give the rest of this world a chance to heal by retrieving its Christian roots, in God’s grace.

27 November 2017 © AIOCS


This is an expanded version of a text originally published in Romanian, in Bărăganul ortodox (a periodic of the Diocese of Slobozia and Călăraşi) 2 (2003) 3.