22nd Annual Fr. Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture
St. Vladimir’s Seminary
Crestwood, New York
22nd Annual Fr. Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture
St. Vladimir’s Seminary
Crestwood, New York
January 30, 2005
In today’s debates about the identity of Orthodoxy, the defense of the Tradition of the Church, in the public perception, has become the specialty of advocates of one form or another of traditionalism. It is implied, therefore, that all other Orthodox are in some way deficient in their adherence to Tradition, are weak in their Orthodoxy, and are, in some instances, even betrayers of the Orthodox faith. On the other side of this “culture war” within Orthodoxy, traditionalists are indiscriminately called “fundamentalists,” and are defined as beyond the pale of serious discourse. On each side of the debate the relevance and importance of concerns and motivations coming from the “other side” are either not heard or are dismissed. None of this allows thoughtful conversation. These reflections are presented in the hope that thoughtful conversation is possible, and in the conviction that such a conversation is urgently necessary.
A central affirmation of Orthodoxy is faithfulness to Tradition. This is true in every setting and context. Orthodox Churches and Orthodox Christians in the various “new worlds” of Orthodoxy in Western Europe, North and South America, and Australia are as committed to Tradition as are the Orthodox in the historic centers of Orthodoxy in Europe and the Middle East. The common ground between those who are born and raised in Orthodox families and communities and those who convert to the Orthodox faith is adherence to Tradition. Tradition is also the common ground on which Orthodox Christians of today stand with Orthodox Christians who lived in preceding centuries.
In his book The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos (Ware} enumerates the “outward forms” in which the Tradition of the Orthodox Church is expressed—the Bible, the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the later Councils and their doctrinal statements, the Fathers of the Church, the Liturgy, the Icons. In his description of Tradition, Bishop Kallistos is careful to note the living interrelationship of all elements of Orthodox life and Tradition.
“Theology, mysticism, spirituality, moral rules, worship, art: these things must not be kept in separate compartments. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed: a theologian, said Evagrius, is one who knows how to pray, and he who prays in spirit and in truth is by that very act a theologian. And doctrine, if it is to be prayed, must also be lived: theology without action, as St. Maximus puts it, is the theology of demons. The creed belongs only to those who live it. Faith and love, theology and life, are inseparable. In the Byzantine Liturgy, the Creed is introduced with the words, ’ Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Trinity, one in essence and undivided.’ This exactly expresses the Orthodox attitude to Tradition. If we do not love one another, we cannot love God; and if we do not love God, we cannot make a true confession of faith and cannot enter into the inner spirit of Tradition, for there is no other way of knowing God than to love Him.”
There is no one in the Orthodox Church who disputes anything in these descriptions of the Orthodox Tradition. Yet significant disagreements and differences in the Orthodox Churches are not difficult to find. They are present in Orthodox life on a daily basis. They are evident in books and publications and websites. They are encountered within parishes and dioceses and autocephalous Churches. In dimensions of the Church’s life as different as liturgy and worship, theological language and theological orientation, ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, positions and perspectives differ, often radically.
The self-conscious affirmation of Tradition by Orthodox Christians, when juxtaposed with the prevailing disagreements and debates within the Orthodox Church, is a puzzle which requires careful consideration. The reflection which is so clearly needed is by no means limited to scholarly discourse. In today’s Orthodoxy there is, perhaps, no task more urgent for the vocation and mission of the Orthodox Church than a lucid conversation about Tradition, its theological, ecclesiological, pastoral, and ecumenical implications, and its impact on the presentation of the Orthodox faith to the societies in which Orthodoxy bears witness to the Gospel of Christ.
The dictionary definitions of the term “tradition” show the several dimensions of the linguistic and cultural understandings of this word and concept.” The passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, esp. by oral communication. A mode of thought or behavior followed by a people continuously from generation to generation; custom or usage. A set of such customs or usages viewed as a coherent body of precedents influencing the present. A body of unwritten religious precepts. A time-honored practice or a set of such practices. The Latin derivation of the word is given as traditio/tradere, which is translated as to handdown or over. The Greek term is paradosis, also meaning to hand down. In Russian the term is predanie, the dictionary meaning of which is oral account, story, or history handed on or transmitted from generation to generation.
These definitions are correct in the linguistic and cultural sense, but convey nothing of the theological meaning. The question of truth, for example, is left outside the cultural and linguistic definitions. And truth is the key criterion for the Church’s understanding of Tradition. Bishop Kallistos (Ware) offers us a vivid passage on the question of truth in the context of Tradition.
Not everything received from the past is of equal value, nor is everything received from the past necessarily true. As one of the bishops remarked at the Council of Carthage in 257, ‘The Lord said, I am truth. He did not say, I am custom.’ There is a difference between “Tradition” and “traditions”: many traditions which the past has handed down are human and accidental—pious opinions (or worse), but not a true part of the one Tradition, the fundamental Christian message. ( The Orthodox Church)
Mindful of the insistence on truth as the heart of Tradition, the Fathers of the Church and her hierarchs and theologians through the ages give numerous testimonies to the essential importance of Tradition as the experience of living continuity, and the experience of the continuous, unfailing, dynamic presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The following passages illustrate both convictions: that Tradition is a living and dynamic reality, and that we neither add to nor subtract from the Tradition.
“The Old Testament preached the Father clearly, but the Son only in an obscure manner. The New Testament revealed the Son, but did no more than hint at the godhead of the Holy Spirit. Today the Spirit dwells among us, manifesting himself to us more and more clearly…. By gradual additions and ascents, advancing from glory to glory” the people of God grows in its apprehension of the truth. St. Gregory of Nyssa (4th Century)
We do not change the everlasting boundaries which our fathers have set, but we keep the Tradition, just as we received it. St. John of Damascus (7th—8th Centuries)
We preserve the Doctrine of the Lord uncorrupted, and firmly adhere to the Faith He delivered to us, and keep it free from blemish and diminution, as a Royal Treasure, and a monument of great price, neither adding any thing, nor taking any thing from it. Eastern Patriarchs to the Non-Jurors (early 18th century)
Tradition is a witness of the Spirit; the Spirit’s unceasing revelation and preaching of good tidings…. To accept and understand Tradition, we must live within the Church, and we must be conscious of the life-giving presence of the Lord in it; we must fell the breath of the Holy Ghost in it…. Tradition is not only a protective, conservative principle; it is, primarily, the principle of growth and regeneration….Tradition is the constant abiding of the Spirit and not only the memory of words. Fr. Georges Florovsky (20th Century)
A recently published volume of letters by Father Vsevolod Shpiller, a Moscow parish priest has the following passage on Tradition. “It is for us—the breath of the Holy Spirit. Not at all an’addition’ to Holy Scripture or anything like that, but the capacity, possibility, power, and ability to hear what the Savior said. And also what He did not say, His silence. The silence, for example, with which he met the question of Pilate: ‘What is truth?’” (It is interesting to note that this letter of Fr. Vsevolod was written on December 24, 1963, as a Christmas letter to Dr. Paul Anderson, an old and faithful Anglican friend of St. Vladimir’s Seminary (then in New York City), as well as St. Sergius Institute and the Russian Student Christian Movement in Paris.)
As Bishop Kallistos (Ware) puts it in his article on Tradition in the Dictionary of theEcumenical Movement, “Recent writing on Tradition is marked by a strong preference for dynamic rather than static categories. Tradition is not so much a ‘deposit of doctrine’ as a shared style of living, not primarily an accumulation of documents and testimonies but the life of Christ and the Holy Spirit in the church.” He quotes, among others, the words of Father Dumitru Staniloae, that Tradition “is not a sum of propositions learned by heart, but a lived experience.”
Fathers Alexander Schmemann and John Meyendorff were among the 20 th Century’s articulate theological witnesses to the living, dynamic Tradition of the Church. They saw the liturgical and sacramental life, the theology and history of the Church in the context of the living Tradition. They made their contributions to the life and thought of Orthodoxy in a way which did not limit itself to a description of the Tradition or a repetition of it. They responded to the Tradition, taught and preached in the spirit of the Tradition, and tried to relate the lessons of the Tradition to the challenges of their time in the world and in the Church. And today we gratefully observe the living continuity between the contemporary scholars of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and the teaching of Fathers Georges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann, and John Meyendorff.
The emphasis on the living, dynamic Tradition is shared by many theologians in Eastern and Western Europe and in the Middle East. The theological thought of Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy of St. Sergius Institute in Paris, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Patriarch Ignatius and Metropolitan George (Khodr) of the Patriarchate of Antioch, Christos Yannaras of the Church of Greece, and many others deepens our understanding of Tradition as both the principle of continuity and the principle of dynamism.
The theologians enumerated above without any doubt understand themselves as being faithful to the one Tradition of the Church. At the same time, we see adherence to the Orthodox Tradition adopting a different style and ethos among those who are happy to identify themselves as “traditionalists,” or even as defenders of “traditionalism.” They, likewise, live in the various Orthodox contexts around the world, both in the historically Orthodox settings and in Western Europe, North America, and Australia. (I do not speak of South America, since I have little knowledge about the Orthodox situation on that continent.) They are sometimes found in the canonical Orthodox Churches. Sometimes they are adherents of one or another of the “traditionalist” uncanonical churches.
The “traditionalists” within the canonical Orthodox Churches are very strong in their criticism of ecumenism and Orthodox participation in ecumenism. Among the other positions upheld by the tradionalists are, variously, support for the Old (Julian) Calendar, or criticism of liturgical renewal (seen frequent or regular communion as a decline in Eucharistic discipline), or espousal of head coverings for women, or emphasis of the monastic experience and ascetical literature. These illustrative examples show that questions of style or ethos are important ones in this stream of Orthodoxy today, and not only questions of theology.
The difference between traditionalists within the canonical Churches and the promoters of traditionalism in uncanonical churches is in ecclesiological perspective. In the uncanonical churches there is obviously a readiness to condemn the canonical Churches as modernist and heretical. Consequently, separation from the canonical Churches is seen as courageous and as a necessary act of confessing the true faith. In the canonical Churches, the traditionalists do not propose to leave their Churches, and do not espouse divisions or schisms. They are simply determined to “return” the Churches to the days prior to ecumenism and prior to what they define as modernism.
There is another dimension of Orthodox “traditionalism” which could be called “political Orthodoxy.” There are as many varieties of this dimension as there are societies and contexts. The following examples will illustrate the spectrum of possibilities.
In some of the historically Orthodox societies “traditionalists” are also strongly oriented towards nationalism, the defense of a particular culture and heritage against outsiders, sometimes even xenophobia. Manifestations of such patterns can certainly be found in Russia and Georgia and Greece. In some cases, Orthodox tradition becomes a tool of specific cultural and political agendas. In Russia, for example, some of the key personalities supporting historically Russian cultural and political agendas freely resort to the language of Russian Orthodox tradition and piety. Often enough, these figures are themselves new to Orthodox Christianity, having been atheists only ten or fifteen years ago. For them, the sudden loss of communist ideology created an intellectual void, which they seek to fill by building a Russian national ideology on the foundation of Russian Orthodoxy. In such instances, the defense of Orthodox tradition is not so much a handing down of the tradition as it is an effort to recreate the tradition in the form of an ideology, with results which can be grotesque.
It must be noted—even emphasized—that the rebirth of Orthodoxy in Russia, indeed in the whole “post-Soviet space,” is a complex process. The Russian Orthodox Church has witnessed to Christ under violent persecution, giving the Church thousands of martyrs and confessors. After the fall of communism, there has been a miraculous regeneration of Orthodoxy in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Thousands of parishes have been created, hundreds of monasteries have been reborn, theological schools have multiplied, theological books and all kinds of religious publications are being printed and are available in bookstores. Alongside this miracle of resurrection and life there is a shadow reality, in which we observe manifestations of extremism and other aberrations. It is in this shadow reality that the ideology of Russian Orthodox traditionalism exists.
In the United States some who lean towards Orthodox traditionalism are at the same time oriented towards cultural and political positions identified with the “Christian Right.” Among them there is, on occasion, a serious effort to reflect on the meaning of civic responsibility for Orthodoxy in America, but this reflection is done most often on the basis of an affinity with American religious and political conservatism.
For example, I have often noted that among the Orthodox the cycles of attention to ecumenism, and to specific instances of ecumenical life and specific ecumenical events, customarily accompanied by denunciations of ecumenism, frequently coincide with the cycles of criticism issuing from the Christian Right. It seems clear that the internet sources of information from the Christian Right are providing information or misinformation on which the Orthodox critics of ecumenism often rely.
The “alliance” of some Orthodox traditionalists in the United States with the Christian Right is an alliance with Christians who are usually unaware of Orthodox Christianity, and when aware of it, are hostile to Orthodoxy, seeing it as a religious tradition which espouses idol worship (in the form of veneration of icons), disregards the Bible (due to the emphasis on Tradition), and is a clergy-controlled, sacramental and ritualistic religious tradition which rejects the priesthood of all believers and the doctrine that salvation is by faith alone.
In the public policy causes of the Christian Right in the United States there are some which can find support among Orthodox Christians. Yet we can be sure that those who formulate the positions of the Christian Right in our country there is no sympathy for Orthodox Christianity and its theology, worldview, and history.
The above considerations illustrate that the caution of Orthodox “traditionalists” about Christian liberalism in the United States is not matched by a caution about the Christian Right. Yet both of these Christian options on the American scene fully deserve a discriminating and critical approach by Orthodox Christians. The point is that on a spectrum of moral, cultural, and social issues which are of concern to Orthodox Christians it is possible to find some affinities with Christian liberals, and some affinities with Christian conservatives. Discernment, rooted in the freedom Orthodox Tradition gives us, is needed.
Orthodox Tradition’s role in the life of the Church is primarily the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ. As a sign and expression of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church, Tradition gives to us freedom in Christ’s Truth. It liberates Orthodox Christians from ideological or intellectual or spiritual captivity. It equips us as Orthodox Christians to resist co-optation by any narrow perspective, way of life, or ideology. It gives the freedom to engage some philosophies and world views in dialogue, to identify the poison contained in some world views, and to acquire learning and knowledge in order to bring this knowledge to the service of the Gospel.
The characteristic temptation of Orthodoxy is escape from history, escape from the world. Some Orthodox, depending on their preference, tend to live as if the Byzantine Empire or the Russian Empire exist, or should exist. We tend to leave the knowledge and learning of the secular world outside the circle of our concern. This voluntary life within a ghetto is an enemy of the authentic Tradition of the Church. It is certainly true that there were saints of the Orthodox Church who were not engaged in scholarship, nor interested in dialogue with the surrounding culture. It is equally true that among the greatest Fathers and theologians of the Church are figures with profound knowledge of the culture and intellectual life of their time. The Cappadocian Fathers come to mind. They knew and appreciated classical culture and learning, though these were based on a pagan world view. The Cappadocians brought their learning to bear on their theological and pastoral and apologetic tasks. Yet those who are not Orthodox “traditionalists” and are in principle open to the challenges of the secular world, are nevertheless often quite indifferent to everything outside the Church, and thus lack the ability to understand and therefore to assess the secular reality of our time. And those who are Orthodox traditionalists are most often hostile to the secular culture, and regard any openness to or dialogue with this culture as a betrayal of the Orthodox Tradition.
The great and insidious enemy of Truth and Tradition is reductionism. This is so because in the reductionist mode it is easy to take a truth, an element or dimension of Tradition, and give them such an emphasis that the wholeness, the catholicity, of Truth and Tradition are violated and diminished. This style of Orthodoxy offers the possibility to be totally self-assured of one’s radical adherence to Truth and Tradition, while in reality acquiescing in a partial and distorted Tradition.
The temptation to reductionism is acute in the world today. We see it in political life. We see it in academic life. We see it in religious life. It is certainly present in the Christian world. Orthodox are sometimes insightful in debunking the various secular reductionisms. We are less perceptive in noting the reductionisms to which we ourselves are inclined, the simplifications into which we ourselves so easily fall.
In 1964-1965 Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote three incisive and painful essays on the “Problems of Orthodoxy in America.” The first was called “The Canonical Problem,” the second, “The Liturgical Problem,” and the third, “The Spiritual Problem.”
Addressing the “canonical problem,” Fr. Alexander begins his essay with words of grief, sadness, and dismay as he describes the “jurisdictional” chaos and competition. He goes on to analyze the use and abuse of the word and concept of “canonicity,” the use of the Church as an instrument of national identity, and the consequent loss of the sense of the catholicity of the Church. Fr. Alexander understands that the Orthodox experience in America requires that the Church preserve, for the foreseeable future, “its organic continuity with the national cultures in which she has expressed the catholicity of her faith and life. And she must, in order to fulfill this catholicity, achieve its canonical unity as truly One Church.” The solution, Fr. Alexander writes, is to be found in the principle articulated by St. Cyprian of Carthage in the third century—Episcopatus unus est. This unity of the episcopate as well as the multi-national Orthodox reality in America must be expressed in a Synod of Bishops. The parishes, some of which would be “pan—Orthodox,” and many of which would “remain predominantly, if not exclusively, colored by their national background,” would no longer live in isolation from one another, but to the contrary would share with one another their riches of piety and culture, memory and custom.
The concluding sentences of Fr. Alexander’s essay on the canonical problem help us to see this problem in the context of Tradition. “In the last analysis the requirements of our Orthodox canonical tradition, the solution of our canonical problem coincides, strange as it may seem, with the most practical solution, with common sense. But it is not strange. For Tradition is not a dead conformity with the past. Tradition is life and truth and the source of life. ‘Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free’—free to follow the glorious Truth and to fulfill in this great country the mission of Orthodoxy.”
In his treatment of the “liturgical problem” Fr. Alexander begins by identifying the liturgical crisis in which Orthodoxy in America lives. We are rapidly becoming a Sunday Church, and for most of our people there are only two or three additional obligatory days—Christmas, Epiphany, Holy Friday. Worship is an obligation, but has lost all its relevance to real life. In the past, Orthodox people certainly could and did “lead a miserable life, full of greed and material preoccupation,” but they know they were wrong and were aware “of the gift of another Reality, of the inaccessible yet desirable, beauty of the Kingdom.” “The modern Orthodox,” Fr. Alexander writes, “has lost this desire and this nostalgia. All he wants from the Church is the acknowledgement that he is in ‘good standing,’ and that he has fulfilled his religious obligations and can, with a free conscience, give himself to the ‘pursuit of happiness.’”
According to Fr. Alexander, those who desire to address the liturgical problem often fall into “reductions” of one kind or another. He continues, “I use the term reduction because a feature of all these approaches is that instead of seeing the problem in all its complexities and depth, they reduce it to one aspect, however important, and consider this aspect as the whole problem.” He describes, first, the linguistic reduction, pointing out that translation into the English language requires more than literalism. Liturgy is not intended to convey ideas about God, but to reveal heaven on earth, to put man in direct contact with Reality, of which cult is the adequate and efficient symbol. Fr. Alexander points out that “beauty” is the very content and means of communication in liturgical worship.
The second reduction Fr. Alexander calls “rubricistic.” When the focus is on rubrics, the rules according to which Orthodox services are performed, it is maintained that all liturgical problems will be solved when services are restored to their Orthodox purity, meaning that the fight must be against the many Western, Latin, Uniate or Protestant distortions which have found their way into Orthodox liturgical practices. On this road there is constant danger of “absolutizing” liturgical manuals—“books which are totally deprived of theological, historical and spiritual perspective and even elementary liturgical knowledge.”
Another reduction, according to Fr. Alexander, is the wide-spread obsession with uniformity. The Orthodox Church has “happily lived with a certain pluralism of liturgical customs and traditions, pluralism which in no way diminished its fundamental liturgical unity.” While a measure of liturgical coherence is necessary, the obsession with uniformity is “the sign of an unhealthy and dangerous preoccupation with the externals at the expense of the meaning of worship.” The tragedy in this, Fr. Alexander writes, “is that uniformity for uniformity’s sake does not solve any real problem and only obscures its true scope.”
The real problem, in the analysis of Fr. Alexander, is in the secularism of the American “way of life.” He points out that secularism is not necessarily anti-religious, America being “both deeply religious and deeply secularistic.” The Orthodox worldview presupposes and affirms that all of life, human activity, and creativity are capable of being sanctified, that is transformed into communion with God. And liturgy is the means of this sanctification of life and the world. Fr. Alexander insists on the central role of liturgical teaching, since the beginning of all Christian work is always teaching. And the goal of this liturgical teaching is to introduce the members of the Church to the inner meaning of liturgical worship, revealing the philosophy or way of life implied in the liturgy. In this way, the meaning of baptism as the beginning of the Christian life in the community of the Church will be rediscovered, as well as the inner significance of the act of communion as God entering our life in order to fill it with His transforming grace. Likewise, liturgical teaching will orient the people of the Church towards the joy of the sanctification of time, the joy of the feasts, the “joy of knowing Christ, of being with Him, of remembering Him,” and the necessity of repentance.
In conclusion, Fr. Alexander cautions against the two options which seem to be the mutually-exclusive and self-evident choices: the first being a total rejection of America, expressed in a flight from a world and society which are in apostacy and an “isolation in an artificially recreated past;” the second being an acceptance of “Americanization” and a consequent surrender to secularism. “...Whether one puts the emphasis on America (acceptance) or Orthodoxy (rejection) neither of these ‘realities’ is real as long as it is mere rejection or acceptance. Orthodoxy which lives by ‘negativism’ is no longer Orthodox, and Orthodoxy which simply ‘accepts’ has also ceased to be Orthodox….What we have to do is neither accept nor reject but simply face the world in which we live, and face it as Orthodox Christians.” Fr. Alexander concludes with this passage: “...It is primarily in and through worship that the Church acts upon the lives of her members, and through them—upon the world in which they live. It is in and through liturgy that the Kingdom of God ‘comes with power’ (Mk. 9:1)—power to judge and to transform. It is liturgy which, by revealing to men the Kingdom, makes life and history, nature and matter a pilgrimage, an ascension towards the Kingdom. It is liturgy, in short, that is the power, given to the Church, to overcome and destroy all ‘idols’—and secularism is one of them.”
The final essay addresses the “spiritual problem,” which Fr. Alexander calls the “ultimate” one. He finds the roots of the spiritual crisis in secularism—an American secularism which “both accepts religion as essential to man and at the same time denies it as an integrated world-view permeating and shaping the whole life of man.” Orthodoxy in America, he charges, has surrendered unconsciously to this secularism, and in this is the source of all our difficulties. The central fact in this surrender is “the sociological reduction,” which views man “as entirely determined in his ideas, ideals and behavior, by his sociological environment—be it ‘middle class,” “modern world,” or “technological age.” Opposed to this view, the Christian faith has a fundamentally personal character, Fr. Alexander insists, and it is human persons who accept Christian faith, and not cultures or societies, it is persons of faith who change cultures and societies from inside.
The second “reduction” Fr. Alexander describes as a spiritual problem of Orthodoxy in America is the reduction of the parish to an “organization with officers, by-laws, finances, property, dues, meetings, elections.” Noting that this view of the parish is a relatively new phenomenon, Father Alexander offers a description of the parish reality which prevailed over many centuries—the parish as the Church or temple, “a place of worship serving as the religious center of a more or less ‘natural’ community: a village, a district of a city, etc.” Though there were many deficiencies and weaknesses in the Church of all ages…she referred, be it only by her presence, the whole life of man to the ultimate issues of eternal salvation and eternal damnation; she reminded him of death, Divine judgment and eternity; she called him to repentance and offered him forgiveness and the possibility of new life and she was here for this purpose and nothing else.”
Orthodoxy’s progressive surrender to secularism is seen as tragic by Fr. Alexander because it is unconscious. All of this demands a religious restoration. The first level of such a restoration is liturgical, and the liturgy “must become again the measure, the criterion, the judgment of the “parish life.” The second level of restoration is education, both of clergy and of laity. The third dimension of religious restoration in the parish is the rediscovery of its missionary character. And at the core of these “impossible” tasks of religious restoration in the parish—in liturgy, in education, in missions—is the “personal” dimension of Orthodoxy. It is not parishes which will be converted, but persons. Fr. Alexander concludes by emphasizing that within American culture there is a “basic element which makes it possible for Orthodoxy not simply to exist in America but to exist truly within American culture….This element is ... freedom.” “There is nothing in the American culture which could prevent the Church from being fully the Church, a parish truly a parish, and it is only by being fully Orthodox that American Orthodoxy becomes fully American.”
The essays written by Father Alexander in the 1960s illustrate the intellectual and spiritual effort that is required to name the challenges Orthodoxy is encountering and to face the real situation of Orthodoxy. Yet our reflection on the three essays in the “Problems of Orthodoxy” series leads us to the painful realization that the crises Fr. Alexander exposes and describes have scarcely been addressed, and certainly have not been resolved. Forty years after the publication of these essays the diseases Fr. Alexander diagnoses have progressed. This failure is the source of the present polarization in Orthodoxy. The yearning for traditionalism is a response to the failure of the Orthodox Church as a whole to find in the living Tradition the very obvious solutions to the spiritual, liturgical, and canonical diseases which wound the body of the Church and diminish the Church’s witness. This traditionalist response, with its concerns and alarms, is understandable. Yet it is an unhealthy response to a deeply unhealthy situation. What the advocates of traditionalism usually do not notice is the danger of new distortions hidden within their worldview.
Tradition understood in the key of traditionalism risks becoming an ideology. We know well the trajectory of ideology during the last one hundred years. Ideology is oriented towards inhuman utopianism, towards ossified ways of thinking, towards idolatry.
Orthodox witness in every context of Orthodoxy’s life today would be immeasurably strengthened by a deeper and more comprehensive reading of Tradition and its meaning. The task for deepening our understanding of Tradition belongs both to the whole Church. It is a task for traditionalists and for those who are not comfortable calling themselves traditionalists. Engaging in this task together, and challenging one another, would alert us to the real problems we face both within the Church’s life and in her mission in the world. We would be better equipped to hold together all the dimensions of the Truth, all the elements of the Church’s teaching and theology, life and mission. And we would know how to be Orthodox without escaping from history, and also without surrendering to the ideologies and ways of life which distort our witness to Christ because they distort the inner life of Orthodox Christianity.
Since Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote his essays on the “Problems of Orthodoxy” forty years have passed. Much has changed in the life of Orthodoxy both in America and in Europe. Yet much remains the same. The crisis which Fr. Alexander described has deepened and progressed. Nevertheless, some of the key elements he proposed for the “religious revival” of Orthodoxy in America have become part of our life. When he wrote his essays, there was virtually no Orthodox literature in the English language. Now, there is a long catalogue of Orthodox publications in the English language. This offers a successful, indeed vital, example of the “educational task” which Fr. Alexander proposed. The Orthodox theological and educational books are published because people are reading them. What people read is being absorbed and provokes reflection. Some of what is learned in the reading and reflection is being applied. Could it be that the overcoming of the crisis described by Fr. Alexander is on the way, is still largely invisible, but will make itself known in due course and in God’s own time? Should our response to this hope and expectation be “Amen?”
The living Tradition unites us with those who went before us in the community of the Orthodox faith. It unites us with one another in fidelity to the apostolic faith. And it orients us towards God’s future, as we follow Christ. And our fidelity to Tradition protects us from the dead ends and idolatries of liberalism and traditionalism through the gift of freedom in Christ’s Truth.
The aphorism of Professor Jaroslav Pelikan, found in his five-volume history under the title The Christian Tradition, is a vivid image of the Tradition/traditionalism polarity, offering us a challenge and criterion for life in the spirit of the Orthodox Tradition: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”