Seeking a More Brilliant Light: A little prolegomenon on Tradition, Authority and Orthodoxy

But any man of sense would remember that the eyes are doubly confused from two different causes, both in passing from light to darkness and from darkness to light; and believing that the same things happen with regard to the soul also, whenever he sees a soul confused and unable to discern anything he would not just laugh carelessly; he would examine whether it had come out of a more brilliant light, and if it were darkened by the strangeness; or whether it had come out of greater ignorance into a more brilliant light, and if it were dazzled with the brighter illumination. Then only would he congratulate the one soul upon its happy experience and way of life, and pity the other; but if he must laugh, his laugh would be a less downright laugh than his laughter at the soul which came out of the light above. (The Republic, Book VII, Plato, trans. W.H.D. Rouse, p. 316)

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him (Gospel of St. John 1:4-10, NKJV)


All permutations of Christianity reside within (or in connection with) a tradition, or multiple traditions, sacred and/or secular. Tradition(s) guide and shape us and our beliefs. Some are formal and highly visible,  others almost deny their own existence. Some are really a combination of several traditions, such as the modern American mega-church that combines post-industrial consumerism with scientific programmatic management with marketing psycho-demographics with late-Radical Reformation go-as-you-please performance-worship and individualistic personal Bible interpretation. Whatever it is, every Christian is in, or is influenced by at least one Christian-historical tradition, if not several, including non-Christian traditions.

Many of us have had the experience of moving from one tradition to another, each time believing we have come from a form of darkness into a new light, or from a lesser light to a more brilliant light. With so many competing traditions, each claiming to provide the Truth, each with its own interpretation of scripture or method of interpretation, each with its understanding of what “church” means, it might make sense to strip away all traditions and start with a blank slate. But we can’t really do that very well. Even the lone-wolf Bible interpreter will be caught up in tradition, the only questions being which one(s) and is he able/willing to see it? A third question is whether he is able to account for it adequately in the the pursuit of Truth?

I am bound up with traditions. I embrace some, even without knowing it much of the time. I kick at some and I am baffled by others. I want to know if there is a Tradition from this sea of traditions, a “version” of Christianity, that stands above the others. Is there a normative Christianity that stands apart from the modern, consumer oriented, smorgasbord of christianities that compete for our attention today, and also stands apart from the historical rending that still ravages Western society as the result of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation?

I have a very limited and unformed mind. I am not very smart and certainly not well educated. I will never solve the questions above. But I still must examine myself and ask what is it that I believe? Where do I begin? What follows is a highly personal attempt at coming to terms with some foundational assumptions on Tradition that continue to shape my life, my approach to studying scripture, believing doctrine, and being a Christian. I look for your insights and observations to help me sort this out. It is likely that my speculations are full of hubris and in dire need of correction. I pray that God will lead me to the truth.

The gag reflexive, or what comes
after post-modernism?

I am a post-modernist. I don’t mean that I claim or cling to post-modern ideals or philosophy, but I am like a fish in the post-modern sea. You are too. If I am honest with myself I have to admit that I love the personal freedom that post-modernism promises, and I loath it. The fact is, there are some true things in post-modernism, but there is a lot of hopelessness, darkness, and fear. What I long for–and this longing is exacerbated by the “Christianity” that I have been in for a long time–is to strip away all the post-modern garbage and get to Truth. I want that Truth to have legs, to be true intellectually, but also true in practice. I want to be connected to Truth. I want Truth to be ultimate, ancient, for all time, practical and very impractical. I want what I do to have meaning and to be linked to others and what they do. I don’t want a truth that is popular, fashionable (or fashionably un-fashionable), relevant, seeker friendly, or formulaic. I want the Truth that is the Truth of God, that confounds the wise of this world, that is foolish. If I get to the Kingdom of God I want to recognize the Apostles, I want to know Jesus, I want to feel profoundly at home. I also want to trust the Holy Spirit in the history of the Church. I want to know that humans are sinners but that the Spirit is still working in the hearts and minds of men to animate the Church, and always has been.

These are a lot of wants. I am selfish, I know. I focus on myself a lot–I’ve been trained to do just that by my Reformed Protestant training, but I can’t blame my training entirely. I am a sinner. I don’t want to want so much, or be so selfish, or to focus so much on myself. And I don’t want to have to figure it out so much. I want to trust God. I have been on a journey to sort this out, to seek God and His Church, to be a part of the Church, to just rest–post-modernism is exhausting. Then I find the Orthodox Church. How strange. What do I do with Orthodoxy? Is it like the reformed Protestantism with which I am familiar? Not at all. Is it like the Catholic Church? No. Is it foreign? It seems that way sometimes. And it claims the deep roots of Truth as it claims both Authority and Tradition. It is the most ancient church in Christianity. How do I approach it?

The last thing I want to do is claim understanding of the Orthodox Church. I am looking in from the outside. I have very limited intellectual and spiritual capabilities. But I want to sort out my thoughts. I need to look at its claims, especially on Tradition and Authority. But first I need (it’s my habit to assume this need) to examine myself a bit, for I am a child of the Radical Reformation (it is another sea in which I swim) and my eyes are not yet accustomed to the candle-lit rooms of Orthodoxy.

First I want to look at reasons why I might react negatively to some of the claims and even the “aesthetic” of the Orthodox Church. I admit this is a wholly personal project and the issues and reasons that make sense to me may not be the primary ones for others. I pray that God will grant me wisdom in this pursuit.

Against Authority

Sometimes I wonder if Americans did away with having a king so they could make fun of their leaders. We have a tradition of lampooning authority in this country. It is a tradition that is deeply ingrained into our psyches. It is as easy as breathing air for us. On the one hand this makes sense, especially from a Christian perspective. We are all equal in God’s eyes, so we believe, and it rings true for most of us. The president of a country or a company, the headmaster of a school, the captain of a team, all have to comes to terms with God in the same way as we all do. In this way we “see through” the pretense of uniqueness that surrounds the mighty. The question is that while we know the big picture, that we all stand before God equally in need of His mercy, does this equality imply a disregard for authority and position? Are we not to show deference and even reverence for those in unique positions–leader, captain, professor, pastor–or are we to think those positions are meaningless except in terms of mere functionality? The Apostles and their successors were sometimes run out of town (or killed) because they preached doctrines the local authorities did not like. Americans, on the other hand, would run the Apostles and their successors out of town merely because the Apostles claimed authority. And yet, are we not made to need authority? Did not God make us to be beholden to authority? Do we not crave leaders? I am inclined these days to think my anti-authority streak, which I have inherited from my culture and maybe from my sinful heart, is a symptom of anti-human thinking. I worry that Protestantism has turned cynical skepticism into a kind of virtue, and therefore is no longer able to see it as cynical skepticism. Is this true? If so, could this be part of the fallout of the Reformation where so many interpretations of scripture have led to thousands of differing traditions? Is our deep anti-authoritarian streak a defensive reaction to the troubled sea in which we swim? I believe the Apostles would be deeply concerned with our anti-authority tendencies. Am I right?

Against Tradition/Against History

In a similar way Americans do not like Tradition(s) unless they are strictly personal. This includes Tradition as a deposit of beliefs handed down, as a way of interpretation, and as the way one does things. Look at the way our innovative business culture has thrived over the decades. We do not want to accept what came before, we want what is new, we want the next thing, we believe in progress. Americans generally have very poor knowledge of history. That’s because we don’t need to know much about the past. We aim for the future–and we will get there because we have pluck. I wonder how much of this kind of anti-traditionalism was born out of the Reformation. What I find interesting is that the Reformation did away with Tradition by creating a plethora of competing traditions. Growing up I would deride or be deeply skeptical of any tradition other than my Baptist one, yet I held firm to that tradition, neither questioning or challenging it. Do not humans need Tradition? Did not God sanction Tradition by giving Israel a tradition? Can we say that He gave them something in tune with their nature? I believe our need for Tradition ultimately trumps our skepticism of Tradition whether we want it to or not. We might overthrow any Tradition handed to us, but then we create new ones of our own, in our own image. Is this not typical of us, especially of Americans? And as with authority, are my anti-Tradition inclinations anti-human? There is an old Russian proverb that goes something like: Dwell on the past and lose an eye, forget the past and lose both eyes. How blind are we today? My experience tells me that modern American Christians are among to most blind. Would not the Apostles agree? Wouldn’t they see Tradition as critical? Am I right?

Apathy Reigns

Writing in 1976, Francis Schaeffer looked at the world around him, at where that world had come from, and where it stood in the mid 1970’s after all the turmoil of the 1960’s. He said:

Some young people began in 1964 to challenge the false values of personal peace and affluence, and we must admire them for this. Humanism, man beginning only from himself, had destroyed the old basis of values, and could find no way to generate with certainty any new values. In the resulting vacuum the impoverished values of personal peace and affluence had comes to stand supreme. And now, for the majority of the young people, after the passing of the false hopes of drugs as an ideology and the fading of the New Left, what remained? Only apathy was left. (How Should We Then Live, pp. 209-210)

Schaeffer goes on to say:

After the turmoil of the sixties, many people thought that it was so much the better when the universities quieted down in the early seventies. I could have wept. The young people had been right in their analysis, though wrong in their solutions. How much worse when many gave up hope and simply accepted the same values as their parents–personal peace and affluence. (ibid, p. 210)

More than three decades later this apathy compliments our anti-traditionalism, blinding us to the profound Truth contained within the history of the Church. Still, apathy cannot remain and, increasingly, many are beginning to look beyond their immediate culture to ancient practices for meaning. The trouble with this movement is that, without a historical basis, without an understanding of the purposes of authority and tradition, it will likely produce an eclectic Christianity with questionable dogma and a top-heavy aesthetic balancing on a feelings-based humanism masquerading as “deep spirituality.” In some corners we are already there.

There is another trap regarding apathy we can fall into. We can determine we will not let apathy rule us. So we create emotion-filled activities in order to manufacture an “on fire for Jesus” experience. We try to stay always on the mountain top, always with that “high” that tells us we are close to God. What we end up with is a very personal kind of faith that measures itself more against how we feel rather than Truth.

Against Cultivation

We have an idea of the noble savage. It comes from Rousseau, was filled out by the Enlightenment, and is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. On the one hand we love technological progress and modern society, but on the other hand we want to be free of all that, to have man be free of cultural norms, free of rules, free of others. In our pursuit to free ourselves we have created savages without nobility. Remove culture and we get unruly children. Culture is discipline in light of beauty.  Now consider a well tended garden. It will be lush with life. It will be beautiful and thriving. Talk to the gardener or, better, watch the gardener at work, and one discovers that a great amount of work went into shaping, weeding, pruning, guiding, feeding, etc., that garden. Correctly prune a tree and it grows full and produces better fruit. Let the tree grow wild and it becomes ragged and the harvest is poor. There is a similarity when it comes to human beings. Our characters bloom when tended to properly in the pursuit of virtue. When it comes to Christianity we in the West have inherited a concept of faith that is personal to the detriment of the corporate, which is to say the detriment of Tradition. You shall know a tree by its fruits, and this the one of the fruits of the Reformation. This personal faith is a faith that typically seeks to way of least resistance, seeks the milk and not the meat. First, we might say that Truth is Truth, but then we drink the water of our American culture and live like Truth is really a personal matter, a matter of choice and preference. Second, we gather as Christians in temporary churches, seeking communion with other individuals who, like ourselves, have their own personal christianities. Strange how often we apply the “rule” of not talking religion even when in church. But because we do not embrace either Tradition or Authority, our faiths (individual faiths rather than a unified faith) grow wild and unwieldy. If we are offered Tradition and Authority we turn away. We do not want to be “shackled” thus. All the while our free and unfettered faith grows ragged and the harvest is poor. This is the state, I believe, of much of American Christianity; a state that hindsight can predict beginning from the sixteenth century. Is Christianity too important to be left up to each individual, or is it so existential that we really have no other option?

Against Funny Hats & The Diminishing
of Nobility

The Baptist preachers I grew up with wore fine suits. They dressed like bankers and successful salesmen. Today many evangelical preachers are far too hip to wear suits. They wear faded jeans, un-tucked shirts, sport goatees and sometimes tattoos. They may even hold a paper cup of coffee when they preach. I am not a fan of the fine suit, but the current trend, which is a hole-hearted embrace of our broader cultural trends, is an aesthetic move away from both the nobility of man and the glory we ultimately seek. This trend stands as one example of how modern American evangelical Christianity (as inheritors of the Reformation) is in radical contrast to the ancient, un-seeker-friendly Orthodox Church. What one finds in an Orthodox Church is a constant pointing to the glory of God, to the beauty of the Gospel, to the nobility of man though he be a sinner. American culture tends to make fun of Tradition and Authority, and we also make fun of what we call the “trappings” of those things. Those of the Radical Reformation, who only need four walls and a pulpit, find the smells and bells of Orthodoxy (and high-church Protestant and Catholic churches for that matter) to be quaint, possibly ludicrous, and even wicked. Could it be, however, that there is some confusion? Look at the religious and liturgical instructions God gave to the Israelites. Was God placing on them a burden from which we have freed ourselves, or was God, being the designer/creator of man, giving them something that coincided with their needs as creatures? Can it be that the “costumes” worn by Orthodox priests (presbyters) say sometime important about the nature of our souls? If we do away with most all formality (other than sitting quietly while the preacher preaches) do we do away with something more profound and deep within our very design? Is it possible that in our desire to correct our tendency to get caught up in the externals at the expense of the internal that we wrongly trashed the external, claiming it was the problem, rather than deal with the real problem? Is that not why we are still focused on the external (hipster preacher with faded jeans and coffee in hand) rather than the glory of God and the nobility of man?

Humanity lost in Humanism, or the
Will to be God

On December 5, 1931 began the total destruction of the cathedral of Christ the Savior Orthodox Church in Moscow.

This massive undertaking began under orders of Joseph Stalin so as to make way for a new temple to Communism: the Palace of the Soviets, which was, ironically, never constructed for lack of budget. Instead, a swimming pool was built on the spot. After the fall of Communism the pool was destroyed and the cathedral was rebuilt bigger than before.

Why do I bring this up? For two reasons. One is that persecution has never destroyed Christianity. Many Christians died under Soviet domination, but it was the Soviets who finally failed. In the end it turns out that Christianity was there all along, adapting to its social context, keeping its traditions and its Tradition, and flourishing, with great difficulty at times, yes, but still vibrant. (As an aside: I remember as a boy hearing that Russian Christians often prayed for the Church in the West because they saw us going the way that affluent societies go. I was nonplussed. I only now understand what that meant.) It is not the existence of outward grandeur, for example a great cathedral, that preserves the Christian faith. Christianity flourishes because of the working of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the Spirit and the Spirit has never left, has always been active, guiding the church in its faith and its traditions. Human beings are sinners and make a lot of mistakes, but the Church, with all its human flaws, continues and even flourishes.

Secondly, I see the destruction of the Christ the Savior Orthodox Church as being somewhat analogous to the rejection of Tradition by some corners of Protestant Christianity. In fact, this act is not unlike the destruction brought about by the Reformation. You see, Stalin’s problem was not that he bought into a particular economic system, or even a bad form of government. Stalin’s problem was pride. He made himself equal with God. The Soviets thought it quite natural and appropriate to destroy that church. In contrast, the Reformers were men of God. They saw real problems with the Church–which, for them, was the Catholic church (the Orthodox Church never went through a Reformation). However, I am struck more and more by how the Reformation looks , more like a rebellion and not about reforming the Church. I see Erasmus as a reformer. I see Luther, et al., as being a revolutionary, and with all revolutions comes destruction and unintended consequences. But I also see the Reformation as being less about the correct interpretation of the Bible, as it still claims, and more about placing man at the center. I have always loved that famous scene where Luther gives his “here I stand” speech. However, that speech (or at least that famous quote) was all about himself, he was the focus and not God. He asks for God’s help, and he points to the scriptures, but only in terms of his own interpretation and conscience. What we have is a movement away from Church authority to human authority, but this movement threatens to turn sola scriptura into a merely Christianized version of “man is the measure.” As I understand it, the Orthodox Church would have looked at that and wondered why they were even having the debate, not because the questions raised were not important, but because the real problem was elsewhere. Have we in the West inherited a false dichotomy?

Hesitating towards a conclusion

All these positions are part of my psyche. I have a strong anti-authority streak. I don’t want anyone telling me what to do. I am deeply skeptical of any tradition and I prefer ones of my own making. I tend to be apathetic. I don’t want to be cultivated in that I don’t want to be pruned. I am fearful of religious garb and, though I think highly of the idea of human nobility, I tend to like the false noble savage concept. And finally, I say God is number one, but I live my life with myself on the throne. Though I know each of these positions are wrong I cannot make myself completely deny them, at least I cannot remove them from my psyche. I also think these positions are part of the Christianity I inherited. If that is so, then I think that Christianity is possibly wrong; not entirely without truth, of course, but still deeply wrong in some critical ways.

Could it be that the Protestant rebellion that has so formed my life should be rejected, not because it’s critiques of 16th century Catholicism were wrong, but because it fundamentally lacked humility? Have I inherited that lack of humility and called it being a good Christian, a reformed Christian? Should I reject the Western rift, the +a/-a of the Reformation/Counter Reformation, and look to an earlier and non-Western Church? Should I look East and change my views on authority, tradition, et al? I cannot say. What are your thoughts? Is there a conclusion in all this?

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