Traditionalism vs. Tradition

Traditionalism vs. Tradition


The late great scholar Jaroslav Pelikan once observed: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

In Orthodox Christianity, to which the former Lutheran scholar Pelikan converted in his last years, Tradition lives because it is personally transfigurative and expressive of the noetic life of our Lord’s Church.

By contrast, Traditionalism goes through the motions and forms of wearing robes and titles and observing rites, while bowing to the fleeting ideologies, social structures, and consumerism of a soul-destroying secularism. It loses the transfigurative and personal noetic life of our Lord’s Church. It offers in the end a warmed-over revival of the failed Living Church of the gulag yoke rather than the spirit of the Catacomb Church.

Thus it was ironic to see this week an article featured on the Orthodox Church in America’s webpage indicating the road toward the same Traditionalism that Dr. Pelikan rightly condemned.

It did so by looking to secularist culture as a reason to re-think our living Tradition, in exchange for allowing the forms of Orthodoxy to co-exist with the world more happily, a very American idea.

The article, entitled “Never-changing Gospel; ever-changing Culture,” stated that its goal was “to encourage the reader to raise questions and not to fall prey to the fiction that all questions pertaining to God, human life and culture have been already raised and answered in the past.”

It argued that “the Church can no longer ignore or condemn questions and issues that are presumed to contradict or challenge its living Tradition. Among the most controversial of these issues are those related to human sexuality, the configuration of the family, the beginning and ending of human life…. If the Church is to engage culture, if it is to contribute to the culture and if it is to synthesize what is good, true and beautiful coming from the culture to further the Gospel then it will have to expose and ultimately expel the ‘new and alien spirits’ that have weakened its authentic voice. Among these spirits are Biblical fundamentalism and the inability to critique and build upon the writings and vision of the Fathers.”

Pushback against the article this week has included dozens of critical responses by clergy and laity on the Wonder blog, separate critical articles by Orthodox bloggers Fr. Hans Jacobse and Rod Dreher, and reportedly at least one meeting of clergy with an OCA Bishop to protest the post. Finally the article was taken down and replaced by a statement from Metropolitan Tikhon.

Unfortunately, the views tentatively offered in the original article echoed the leitmotif of a small but influential circle in the jurisdiction who seem to argue that:

–Orthodoxy needs a “new anthropology” of sex and new visions from the Holy Spirit to accommodate changes in culture and science (more on that later).

–American Orthodox need to be open to changing the traditional Orthodox Christian anthropology of sex or else they are what Fr. Seraphim Rose called “crazy converts,” who are stuck in culture wars.

But in this view, changing the Tradition in response to American secularism paradoxically seems OK. This often involves a kind of cultural American phyletism–on the one hand criticizing the influence of American Orthodox converts, while on the other emphasizing the need to engage an imaginary homogenous American culture and to be less “old world.” Ironically, the “old world” element in American Orthodoxy often can be pluralistic and cosmopolitan by comparison.

As indicated in the original Wonder blog, scientific secularism unintentionally or not often becomes the underpinning for efforts to explore new approaches to sex and family outside the living Orthodox Tradition. A type of scientific fundamentalism becomes a basis for critiquing Scripture and patristic texts, ironically mirroring American Biblical fundamentalism.

But the problem with the supposed scientific basis of a narrative of cultural progress is that scientific asssumptions are themselves often skewed culturally and ideologically, especially when used as a basis for metaphysics, as Thomas Kuhn’s work showed (and as recently reported research on ideological bias in the field of social psychology again illustrates).

For example, contrary to fundamentalist scientism, the complex combination of epigenetic, genetic, environmental, and personal considerations involved in sexual orientation is closer to the ambiguities of queer theory developed from Foucault (involving family, cultural, and sexual anthropology rather than biological determinism) than to identity politics. In the latter, sexual identity becomes individualistically essentialist rather than relational to God.

The Church understands that passions can be involuntary. But the Church always also has recognized the need for ascetic struggle against the passions, and the need to transfigure those passions with help from the love and grace-filled economia of God, central to growth into real personhood in Christ through theosis.

Similar discussions emerged in the OCA’s Strategic Planning process in its Contemporary Issues discussions. They emerged at the time of the removal of Metropolitan Jonah, who was publicly charged in an online campaign led by a prominent lay official with alleged sins that included His Beatitude’s signing the Manhattan Declaration against same-sex marriage. That online campaign featured views similar to those now highlighted on the OCA website. At one planning retreat, a priest cited the need for a “new anthropology” for Orthodoxy, based on compassion on those struggling with sexual temptation. But his plea was met by the tears of a mother. She detailed the confusion and severe stress of families in a parish when clear teachings of the Church on sex seemed ignored.

Indeed, the need for compassion in the Church must extend to all families, lonely people, and young people struggling to maintain an Orthodox way of life, or in need of the Church. They struggle in the midst of an increasingly aggressive Western secularism in media, consumerism, and education. In one of many examples of which I know, a Christian student who came to study at an American college withdrew to return to his home on another continent. He spoke of the suicidal feelings he experienced as a traditional Christian amid American secularism, the isolation and the continual putting down of his beliefs and morals, and the effort he felt to erase his primary identity as a Christian.

The Wonder article wrote, “Our loneliness and vulnerability take us from the comfort and even smugness of familiarity which is dependent on the past.” But the traditional Catholic writer Anthony Esolen in the same week as the Wonder blog piece ironically took a more authentically compassionate Christian approach to those isolated by today’s secularism, in an article entitled, “Who Will Rescue the Lost Sheep of the Lonely Revolution?” In it he writes, from his faith perspective:


“Let me speak for the children of divorce, who see their homes torn in two, because of a mother or a father who has shrugged away the vow of permanence. I see them straining to put a fine face on it, to protect the very parents who should have protected them, to squelch back their own tears so as not to hurt those who have hurt them. Who speaks for them, harried from pillar to post? Who pleads their case, whose parents conveniently assume that their children’s happiness must depend upon their own contentment, and not the other way around? Where is my Church’s apostolate for the children sawn in half, while the Solomons of our time looked the other way?

“Let me speak for the children thrust into confusion, to justify the confusion of their parents or of people in authority over them. Here is a boy whose father is absent or aloof. He needs to be affirmed in his boyhood, but he shies away from the other boys. Then sidles the teacher into the garden of his boyhood to suggest to him unrealities that he cannot understand. Who speaks for that boy, lonely and hesitant upon the shore, while his more confident fellows splash and swim? Who comes to his assistance to supply the want of fatherly care? Which of my Church’s bishops in all their years have ever turned a single glance his way? ….

“Let me speak for the children exposed to unutterable evils on all sides. Here is a girl at age twelve who has seen things on a screen that her grandmother could never have imagined. She is taking pictures of herself already, and making ‘friends’ among the sons and daughters of Belial. This is happening under our very eyes. She goes to the drug store and must confront magazines for ‘women’; blaring out their headlines about sex and what without any irony goes by the name of ‘beauty,’ and nobody says, ‘Why should this be?’ Who speaks up for her innocence? Where are the leaders of my Church, helping her to become a gracious and godly Christian woman, rather than a poor self-prostituted wreck, more cynical about the opposite sex at age twenty than the hardest thrice-divorced old woman would be? Who pleads for her protection? Who notices her?

“Let me speak up for the young people who see the beauty of the moral law and the teachings of the Church, and who are blessed with noble aspirations, but who are given no help, none, from their listless parents, their listless churches, their crude and cynical classmates, their corrupted schools. These youths and maidens in a healthier time would be youths and maidens indeed, and when they married they would become the heart of any parish. Do we expect heroic sanctity from them? Their very friendliness will work against them. They will fall. Do you care? Many of these will eventually ‘shack up,’ and some will leave dead children in the wake of their friendliness. Where are you? You say that they should not kill the children they have begotten, and you are right about that. So why are you shrugging and turning aside from the very habits that bring children into the world outside of the haven of marriage?

“Let me speak up for the young people who do in fact follow the moral law and the teachings of the Church. Many of these are suffering intense loneliness. Have you bothered to notice? Have you considered all those young people who want to be married, who should be married, but who, because they will not play evil’s game, can find no one to marry? The girls who at age twenty-five and older have never even been asked on a date? The “men” languishing in a drawn-out adolescence? These people are among us; they are everywhere. Who gives them a passing thought? They are suffering for their faith, and no one cares. Do you care, leaders of my Church? Or do you not rather tacitly agree with their fellows who do the marital thing without being married? Do you not rather share that bemused contempt for the ‘old fashioned’ purity they are trying to preserve?

“What help do you give them? Do you not rather at every step exacerbate their suffering, when by your silence and your telling deeds you confirm in them the terrible fear that they have been played for chumps, that their own leaders do not believe, that they would have been happier in this world had they gone along with the world, and that their leaders would have smiled upon them had they done so?”

Prof. Esolen in his piece addresses his Catholic Church from his faith perspective.

But we are blessed with Orthodox hierarchs who in Synodal statements (including recently in the OCA) have provided wise and compassionate guidance in our living Tradition for lonely strugglers.

Would that we all as Orthodox Christians in America show a similar spirit of real compassion in Christ, drawing on our Lord’s transfiguratively living Orthodox Tradition, rather than whistling past the graveyard toward some chimerical American Orthodox Traditionalism.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

About author

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers

Dr. Alfred Kentigern Siewers has a Ph.D. in Medieval English literature from the University of Illinois and M.A. in Early British Studies from the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. He teaches English and Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, where he is incoming Chair of the English Department and Associate Professor. His research includes work on nature in early literature, especially in the writings of John Scottus Eriugena, and in modern fantasy and nature writing, drawing in part on Estonian ecosemiotics. He is the author of Strange Beauty: Ecoritical Approaches to Early Medieval Landscape, editor of Re-Imagining Nature: Environmental Humanities and Ecosemiotics, and co-editor of Tolkien's Modern Middle Ages, and he is a co-editor of the Stories of the Susquehanna Valley project. He was baptized into the Orthodox Church in 1999. His wife Olesya is originally from Russia and they have two sons. They are members of the Chapel of the Holy Spirit mission (OCA) in central Pennsylvania, regularly visit Agia Skepi Monastery (GOARCH) nearby, and are also long-distance member-supporters of St. Herman of Alaska Church mission (ROCOR) in northern Virginia. He studies in the Pastoral School of the ROCOR Midwest Diocese and serves on the Steering Committee of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration. Formerly he worked as urban affairs writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and Midwest correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor. He prays that his unworthy views here are Orthodox and do no harm, but they otherwise are his own.