I realize more and more clearly that Orthodoxy is the principle of absolute freedom. 1
- Fr. Alexander Elchaninov
Abraham Heschel's writings, especially on the state of modern religion, ring prophetic and true. In a few words he distills the crisis of contemporary religion. It is time we paid attention to such voices.
The human side of religion, its credos, rituals, and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is 'to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.'
When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless. 2
What message could be more apropos for our Church? Here we are in the twentieth century in a position to offer so much to so many, but we do not even know what century it is! Can we possibly know who we are if we do not know where we are?
The past does not exist; the future always eludes us. All we have is the present. To live in the present demands engagement, and that always requires meaningful and significant change. Our model is the Incarnation. The Lord truly became human, while His divine nature and person remained unchanged. In the same way, the Church throughout the ages has incarnated truth in the specific garment of the time, culture, and place in languages, art, music, liturgical traditions, canon, and all the rest without dogmatizing them! Some Christian confessions have dispensed with classical doctrine in an effort to become relevant. We, on the other hand, have made irrelevance sacrosanct by dogmatizing everything. At the same time there are contemporary issues of grave importance to address that call for a purification of our perceptions and a radical commitment to the truth which alone can liberate and save humanity. Openness, courage, creativity, and compassion are called for.
Usually the invocation of orthodoxy happens with a boasting about faithfulness to what is genuine and authentic. Boasting means a demand for common recognition of and reverence for what has been handed on, but also for those people who maintain and represent it. Thus, orthodoxy comes to function as a means for justifying not so much conservative ideas as conservative people - to serve often for the psychological veiling of cowardice or spiritual sterility. Those who will not risk or cannot create something new in life fasten themselves fanatically to some orthodoxy . . . protectors of the forms, interpreters of the letter. They transform, finally, any orthodoxy whatever into a 'procrustean bed' where they mutilate life in order to make it fit the demands of their dogma.3
Our misguided concept of the Church as rigidly unchanging hinders our response to the contemporary world. Note that Orthodoxy is still governed by a structure dependent on the existence of empires and emperors long dead and canons that have no practical application. Note that while the rest of Western society struggles with issues that impinge upon real human life, we are lost in an attempt to resurrect ancient worlds, all the while saying nothing to the people who desperately need answers from us. Or, if not answers, then at least a compassionate, nonjudgmental ear.
The Cappadocian fathers, with genuine genius, addressed their age in its own terms and produced theology that is unsurpassed. It is so exquisite because it reflects the dynamism, methodology, and intent of the Gospel itself. It was not merely a parroting of what had once been said. It was a reformulation of the Gospel in new words for a new age. The fathers use of the language and concepts of Hellenism was bold, controversial, and even risky. But who can argue that it should not have been done? Our complicated age calls for that kind of response. Orthodox "political correctness" - speak these words, wear these clothes, do these things, avoid these questions - is at worst a betrayal of the Gospel and at best a temporary tragedy in the life of the Church. The Body of Christ is anything but a purity cult for a select and arrogant few.
A time-honored tenet of the Church is that the truth does not change. That is, what has been revealed by God about Himself and His relationship with His creation. This is theology proper, and it includes those two fountains of all dogma: the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation. This is immutable. Vestments, music, iconography, canonical discipline, liturgical practice all have undergone significant change through the centuries. While they reflect the unchanging truth, they to not exhaust it nor do they pass from age to age, from culture to culture unaffected by the particulars of time and place. The Church is not locked into a specific era, but demonstrates in every way the immutable truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that is, if she is being true to Her Lord. This means that the Church is dynamic and alive, not static and lifeless. This means that the Church can - no must - respond to the issues of the time courageously, and this means change. Are we eternally bound to the tyranny of the argument that because it has never been done it must never even be considered? Transparency, repentance, honesty, humility, compassion, courage, dialogue, and vulnerability might be more effective tools than defensiveness, arrogance, and triumphalism.
We must find a new voice to speak the ageless Gospel to a new age. We must find answers to new questions. We must seek out and institute meaningful changes that are at once faithful to what is truly ineffable and courageous enough to touch the lives of our contemporaries. The Church has been given the commandment to embrace everyone, from the most disaffected to the most highly exalted, like Her Lord, Who stretched out His arms on the Cross. Everything in our present condition mitigating against this must be examined thoroughly and either transformed or discarded.
We cannot deny that the Church changes from age to age in those things which are accidental to the particulars of history and culture. Empires rise and fall, for example, bishoprics disappear, others are formed, all without altering the faith one jot or tittle. Clerical dress and the style of haircut have changed from time to time. These things are not sacrosanct. They are accidental. They reflect the response of the Church to the present, and this is very important. Without this kind of response the Church becomes marginalized and ineffective. The Cappadocians did not fear to utilize the language of Hellenism to transmit the faith in a Hellenistic world.
How is it that we so often fear to tread in their footsteps? I daresay we have neither the courage nor the vision they had, so we find ourselves struggling to be the Church in the twentieth century.