Appropriation of Tradition in the West
Kali Tribune proudly presents the first contribution of our Romanian correspondent Mihai Marinescu. In this article he puts forth the question of distinction of religion as a given and religion as a choice, specifically from the standpoint of Orthodox Christianity. The final analysis yields some worrisome trends on display in the West, where conversion is, as it appears, confused with it’s more or less militant inversion.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
St Paul’s verse deserves to be given a closer look in the light of our subject. While it is true that by and of itself it sends to the heresiological dustbin any ideology of ethnic-filetism – and does so once and for all, regardless of when and where it emerged – modern man can all too easily be tempted to draw the conclusion from the opposite extreme: that in-born elements of personal identity are purely and simply irrelevant and can be discarded or laid aside as trifle whenever one so chooses – or even that, as a Christian, one is obliged to do so.
Of course, the above quote, when put under scrutiny, especially in the context of all other Paul’s letters, will surely lend the correct interpretation: one’s “natural” identity, the ethnic and particular, local elements with which he is born are secondary to his spiritual identity which is in the image of the crucified Christ.
However, “secondary” by no means equals “irrelevant”. It only means that the ethnic and the particular act as a vehicle – or a vessel, if you like – for that which is primary and central. St. Paul still lives and expresses his Christianity as one born among the Jews. The Greeks live it like Greeks, Alexandrians like Alexandrians, Antiochians like Antiochians and Celts like Celts. The unity and universality of the Faith is experienced locally and particularly.
None of this should be understood in a historicist sense, but in a personal one, i.e. in the light of the truth that each one’s religious experience is lived personally, not abstractly in a manner detached from any concrete considerations.
With this in mind let’s take a look at the metaphysical roots of man’s personal identity. The final goal is to try and take a quick glance at the growing popularity of the Orthodox Christianity in the West (America in particular) and also to tackle a delicate, for some a seemingly senseless, question: how is conversion possible and in what way can we consider it as something real?
The metaphysical roots of man’s space-time identity
Consider these words of St. Maximus the Confessor:
Time is aeon when it (time) halts its movement and aeon is time when, engaged in movement, it (aeon) becomes measured
This isn’t at all far removed from the well known platonic statement that “time is the moving image of eternity”.
To avoid losing ourselves in unnecessary technical details and distinctions of what exactly is the aeon and what is eternity, it will suffice to point out this: man participates in both time and becoming as well as in that which transcends them, in the world of spirit. His true and ultimate identity is to be found in the eternal image of God sown in the center of his being.
From here one’s faculties at the different levels of his being radiate in hierarchical order. Temporal and eternal are not in a relation of opposition or radical division – they are hierarchically ordered and the temporal possesses existence and meaning only through the participation in the eternal. One can also say that the temporal is contained within the eternal.
Keeping with St. Maximus’ statement above, the eventuality of who I am in time is a development that can be traced to the very synthesis of my metaphysical identity in the image of God.
Again St. Maximus (like Origen before him):
The Word of God is neither diffuse nor prolix but is a unity embracing a diversity of principles, each of which is an aspect of the Logos.
According to Patristic teaching, every created being is a word uttered by the Word of God, each representing a certain aspect of the Logos, of being a certain expression of Him. This is indeed true for the whole of the cosmos and every created being in particular, but it is all the more true for man, who is a direct image of God at the center of creation.
There is no need to go any deeper into this doctrine here. Let’s just point out it’s essentials by saying that every human being is a personal, unique and unrepeatable expression of the One Who Is.
This particularized metaphysical expression, inscribed in the very core of our being, becomes developed and symbolized (in the full, traditional meaning of this term) in the space-time conditions to which one belongs. As the doctrine of the One Word and the many words leaves nothing outside of Divine providence, it is clear that the land into which we are born, the time period, the genetic inheritance, the particular outlook of life, the shapes of our bodies, even seemingly unimportant things like social conditions – all those tell us something about our ultimate identity, which transcends our purely historical expression.
Nothing is purely and simply a result of hazard, although the taking into account of the Fall complicates things a little. The Fall is a distortion of the human attributes; it also mars the image of God in man, but let us remember that it can’t ultimately destroy what was sown in the beginning. It can only distort.
Under such circumstances every quality manifested in the fallen world has acquired a corresponding shadow-aspect, one’s greatest virtue being potentially his most deadly vice. Determinism and accident had become intertwined with that what was created for freedom, so that what originally should have been accepted as a gift is experienced as a burden. Some aspects of our existence seem so accidental, that one may wonder if there is anything providential in them. But even in the most seemingly hazardous event there is a seed of Providence, otherwise it would not come to pass.
In the Christian sense, the transcendence of space and time is not meant as their destruction, but transfiguration or concentration, re-integration into their source. Whatever is of value, whatever is according to Logos is taken up to a superior form of existence.
The symbol of the Heavenly Jerusalem bears witness to this: it is the image of a city, symbolizing the re-integration of time into the aeon. And as a city it is a human construction. This should be understood in the sense that the whole of history, even if on the outside it looks like an endless and chaotic clash of actions and reactions, has a hidden inner meaning; so even our fallen experience of history will not have been in vain.
What I point out here applies, of course, both to the single person and to entire nations, races and civilizations.
Acceptance and rejection – the man and the individuum
In this way there is no other life and no other identity for us to experience except the one that was given to us. We may occasionally engage in idle talk about how much more successful we would have been under such and such conditions, in such and such a particular place and historical period, but in fact we are born as we are born.
We either accept this gift of existence – and seek to discover it ever deeper – or we fall into delusion that we are able to re-create ourselves through our choices and become metaphysically self-made men.
Now it is obvious that some things in our lives are more fluid than others. There are things which can never be changed: place and time of birth, ethnicity, parents, family history etc., and there are some that are more fluid (depending on circumstance): social status, circle of friends etc.
Where do we place religion? Should it be in the first or the second category? For a Western reader such question may seem perplexing: of course, he thinks, religion can be changed; it is entirely a “personal” – or should we say: individual – option that must be dictated only by the expediencies of realizing the truth. Everybody should adopt the religion in which he thinks he discovers the greatest amount of truth.
However, should one come to the East the answer becomes not at all so obvious. Here, in some places, it is very possible to find people who state that religion is something as in-born as one’s nationality or ethnicity and that only a superficial mentality would lead one to believe that it can be changed at will. The place where this author is from is not so radical, but it does lean towards this second standpoint.
Yet, when all is said and done, it is a question that does not yield an easy answer. Let’s take a deeper look at this phenomena and how it corresponds to the schema of one’s identity, as outlined above.
There is no need to go into a labyrinth of details that would take us far beyond the limited purpose of this article, so we’ll just say what is essential: through religion we seek to know God and by knowing we should not understand something abstract, like a discursive knowledge born only out of erudition, but an essentially living, existential and personal knowledge in which the totality of one’s life and being is immersed. However, knowing God also reveals the ultimate meaning behind all things and the right measure and relationship behind all things. Our personal identity also becomes revealed – the identity which is created in the Image.
The knowledge of self is dependent upon the knowledge of God.
This can be affirmed in a pan-traditional sense. You can find this idea, for example, in the 6th book of the Plato’s Republic or in the Patristic treatment of the Transfiguration.
Taking it out of the realm of an abstract presentation, this can be envisaged on a day to day basis (to a lesser or a greater extent) by any serious follower of a religion. The personal life acquires an organic rhythm that rises above the chaotic and noisy flow of empirical experience (especially the senseless insane moving flow which can be found in modernity), accompanied by an acceptance of who one is – the living person with all its limitations and weaknesses and even wickedness – completely discarding the anxious search for an identity and the artificial attempt to fit oneself into an imaginary set of opposites, summed up in the distinction of me-not me.
Where this author lives it is, for example, an observable fact that those who remain within the Orthodox Church, or at least to some degree loyal to it, also have a reverence for our land, history and heritage. At the same time those who despise the Church also tend to view their nationality as a matter of shame and something to be despised.
Two types of conversion
Back to the point: if all religions seek God (or some kind of absolute reality or essence, at least) do they all achieve this possibility? To treat this vast question here would be far beside the point. My personal view is somewhere along the lines of St Justin the Philosopher (2nd century saint). I believe that the ultimate truth is revealed only in Christ, while everything else reveals partial aspects of the truth, but never the truth in its plenitude.
Based on what was said above it follows that a flawed or incomplete knowledge of God leads to a flawed, incomplete or distorted knowledge of one’s self and identity as well as a distorted appreciation of one’s inheritance.
And here we arrive at the topic of conversion proper. There are, seemingly, two ways of understanding conversion, two possible experiences of it.
The first is an ontological experience, a calling from within the depths of one’s being. The second is a more or less confused search and thirst for something that transcends the mundane experience which, although it can be very sincere, proceeds from extremely flawed premises and does not penetrate beyond (or beneath) the outer layer of the personality.
So we can sum this all up by saying that there is a conversion at the level of the heart and another at the level of the will.
The first type of conversion can be experienced without changing the religion and without having abandoned it previously. For example, someone can be born Orthodox and even practice the religion as he has learned it from those before him, but without having any resonance within him, until one day when the eye of the heart opens and he begins to see the deeper meaning behind what he has more or less formally practiced until then.
In essence it is a calling to go even deeper within one’s self, even closer to the metaphysical root and Origin and Logos of one’s being.
Here we can point out the very well-known example of Fr. Seraphim Rose. Though not a very big fan of his writings, I believe his conversion story to Orthodoxy can teach his followers something more than anything he has ever written. He describes the almost fortuitous entrance into a Russian church as a sudden awakening, an experience of home-coming along with a certainty that his wandering was finally over. It is truly a conversion that transcended his individual intentions and tastes (indeed at that time he confessed to not have understood at all what was going on inside that church) and whose significance he was only to discover throughout the years. Until then, of course, he was the typical type of modern consumer of metaphysics, hopping from one philosophy or religion to another.
This brings us to the second type of conversion which can be said to be located at the level of the individual will. It, of course, represents something very popular in our postmodern globalist chaos.
Religion, in this case, is seen as something mainly external to one’s self, an accessory which the individual can pick and choose – a choice in which the individual has the initiative.
It is partly a manifestation of consumerism, but the main driving force behind it – a premise from where it stems – is the all too familiar enlightenment myth of the atomized and sovereign individual; the illusion of the individual who stands on a neutral ground and with the power of his own reason weights and analyses ideas, doctrines, dogmas, ritual practices and so on, and accordingly, so he thinks, reaches an individual and informed conclusion. He then makes the decision and gives his own accord to formally join the religion that wins his favor – and, indeed, he views his entrance into that religion as a sort of joining a club. The whole process, of course, is coordinated and decided by the main passion that acts in an individual.
Some are looking for eccentric or exotic rites, others for extravagant techniques, mantras and words of power, others for something which gives them the feeling they are joining some secret elite that raises them above the profane, still other are on the look out for the best mystical theology on the market or the most sophisticated metaphysics and doctrines. The appearances are different but the essence is the same: in the bazaar of religions the “sovereign” individual is manifesting his will (to power even) by gaining the most shiny piece of jewelry to adorn his carefully crafted self-made identity. It is, basically, a pseudo-conversion which does not involve any deeper aspect of one’s personality and does not lead to a deeper revelation but to an even more dangerous delusion and alienation.
The Orthodox Christian in the West
This author does not have any intention in any way to pretend to write an analysis of what is happening in the West and what is the state of Orthodoxy there. I am, admittedly, born in the same post-modern Babylon and have experienced all of the above. However, in Eastern Europe the disease has not reached such an advanced phase and also the wells of Tradition are still there, with plenty of clean and refreshing water to drink, although these resources are in danger of being submerged into a more latent state.
Even so, those who re-actualize them will more quickly achieve at least a few decisive breakthroughs through the encirclement of post-modernity, since this encirclement is not yet very reinforced around the deeper psyche. Its power at the moment is only on the surface with only a shallow penetration beneath.
But all in all, in a globalist world, we are all living pretty much the same thing in essence, the difference being only in intensity. Therefore, one can imagine, the breakthrough is all the more difficult at the very epicenter of the (post-)modern phenomenon.
That being said, one who observes the development of the Orthodox Church in the West (roughly since the great exodus caused by the communist cancer overtaking the East) can clearly see the premises for an organic development of the Tradition, since some of its best representatives in the 20th century have left their seal there, accompanied, of course, by the living liturgical life within the Church.
However, the action is always two-sided and the local environment can – and will – leave its seal on the way Orthodox Christianity is being lived there. This, of course, is something normal and perfectly legitimate if we only consider what was written at the beginning of this article. Christianity is universal but it can only be lived locally, according to the pre-existent possibilities within those who receive it. It is not something alien that needs to exterminate the local culture or mentality because it is, in essence, the very root and revelation of all particular manifestations and cultures in what they have good and virtuous; yet it is a force that can and must shake from the ground up both individual and collective identity, not simply keeping but purifying and transfiguring that which is gold and burning and casting out that which is dirt.
It transforms the individual into a person and the collectivist and rootless mass into an organic community (best expressed by the German word Volk).
This is, of course, something that no man can control according to will, since it is a long and organic process, directed from above by God Himself.
However, as an antithesis to what was written above, there is the danger in which (and this counts especially for America) Orthodoxy is adopted, like mentioned above, as a sort of outer garment without any intention of an ontological transformation, that is: to seek it as a sort of artificial filler of the emptiness caused by a secular and rootless existence, without in any way wanting to confront the cause which have led to this emptiness (nor even thinking maybe that there is something to confront).
We are talking about the situation in which, consciously or not, the delusion of the sovereign individual continues to dominate and seeks to appropriate the new discovered religion for its own purposes.
Let’s take a look at a few examples which are quite visible.
Surface and the depth
First of all, one cannot overlook the fact that Orthodoxy is not alone in the list of choices of some Western intellectuals. Sufi Islam is also a very constant apparition in some circles and we can conclude that the reason lies in their mystical outlook. It is in circles such as these that one senses the presence of a taste for exoticism, as well as for sophisticated “spiritual techniques”. The impression which many adepts of this ilk leave is that they are sufficiently mature and aware of the fact that what is being sold in the West as oriental mysticism such as yoga, or Zen and other such stuff is little more than charlatanism and delusion. Knowing that such practices and religions are more or less closed to Westerners, they pick something which is actually reachable. But the overall impression remains the same: they are adopting nothing more than tools, more or less exterior to them, in order to reach what they call “superior states” and the reasons why they pick these tools and not others are only practical considerations. They “happen” to be born in the West, thus they might as well pick up what is at hand.
Another phenomenon is that of intellectualism – that is: of centering the entire understanding of the religion on the intellect (understood in its most ordinary sense as discursive reasoning) and making erudition a kind of primary focus. Indeed, in such circles one can find a degree of erudition which hardly anyone can stand up to. The accumulation of knowledge in this sense is immense, yet there is very little true understanding beneath it all.
There is a fascination with the most lofty among the doctrines of Orthodoxy – such as the Uncreated Energies – and yet there is a curious a-historical attitude which leaves the actual experience of Faith and Tradition completely hanging.
One example should suffice here. An American convert to Orthodoxy, a very erudite philosopher, has attempted, in one of his articles, to define what should be understood by Holy Tradition. For him, this means nothing more than the first seven Ecumenical Councils and the neopatristic synthesis found in 20th century authors. He even scoffs in another article at people who call Tradition that which is nothing but a local usage, even calling such things superstition.
Now this is a typical position of one who experiences things at the level of the will. Here their notion of “tradition” is something rigidly determined, easily controllable, that can be comprehended by reading the right library on the Ecumenical Councils. That which escapes the grasp of an abstract approach is summarily dismissed as something beside the point or even a deviation.
The a-historical attitude is obvious from the fact that one doesn’t consider that it is precisely those local traditions and usages that are the means – or the branches – through which the life of the trunk is imparted, since otherwise, a vast majority of people along the centuries would never have access, nor the ability, to disseminate libraries of dogmatic and metaphysical treatises.
There are also other examples of very educated and erudite converts who have gone as far as writing whole volumes on the subject of Patristics. Yet, when all is said and done, they’ve pretty much moved on to new intellectual interests – sometimes fringe conspiracy theories, other times Gnostic doctrines and thoughts.
Without judging anyone, if such a quick and even breathless transition from one set of ideas to another is possible, it simply means that beneath the thick layer of erudition and accumulation of facts there is only an autonomous will who seeks to adorn itself with whatever presents itself as shiny enough. There is certainly no real immersion into an authentic, “organic” spiritual life.
One can also find, among many converts, the tendency to act as though by entering into the Orthodox Church they have spontaneously risen to a point where they are no longer affected by the mentality of the modern West. They file a type of criticism against the modern West, as though from a position far removed and above it, as if influences transmitted for quite a number of generations, notwithstanding the immersion into the very environment which continues to multiply and perpetrate them, can be magically made to disappear by the simple mental adherence to a different set of ideas.
These examples are only meant to illustrate the way in which illuminist or in general modern and post-modern anthropologies continue to subtly and subconsciously act in order to subvert what should be means of exorcising them in order to heal the person as well as the community.
It is, of course, more than natural to perceive every any new discovery in the same way one has been unconsciously taught to view everything else. In this way, the study of one’s own location in space and time can offer valuable insights in what should be cultivated and what should be fought against. The first condition to fight a destructive tendency within one’s self is to become aware of its existence.
Ultimately it is not a question of reasoning and debating about metaphysical principles but of actually incorporating and crystallizing the said principles in the here and now, according to natural and in-born qualities.
The question of how will Orthodoxy take roots in the West in the long term have to remain open and it is not something that can be planned or directed according to will. However a conversion according to heart as opposed to one according to choices of the will and its thirst for power (of any kind) is what can make the difference between a passing fad and a true establishing of the presence of the Church.
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