Monday, January 13, 2014

The Witness of Orthodoxy Today


By George I. Mantzaridis
Emeritus Professor of Ethics and Sociology

Sir Steven Runciman, the noted Byzantinist, in his last interview said: "Sometimes I am disappointed by the other churches. Nevertheless, it pleases me to think that before one hundred years pass, Orthodoxy will be the only remaining historical Church. I believe that she offers the real spirituality which the other churches can no longer offer."(1) If this foreboding rings true, then the universality of Orthodoxy becomes current. At the same time its apostolicity, which is one of the four distinctive features of the Church according to the Creed, is emphatically presented on the modern stage.

Apostolicity links the Church together with historical and institutional origin, while at the same time it denotes character and perspective. The Church of Christ is Apostolic because her origins and teachings are based upon the Apostles of Christ. Besides, the Lord’s command to the Apostles had universal scope: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."(2)

Christ was born as a man through the lineage of Judah to redeem the people of Israel and the whole world.(3) He did not overlook the other races and nations but recapitulated all in His theandric (Divine-Human) Body, namely the Church. Although the twelve Apostles represent the twelve races of Israel, they assume ecumenical conscience and teach "all the nations". Racial, national and other kinds of divisive characterizations exist before death’s borders. The Church, rooted upon the truth and actual experience of the victory over death, does not disregard such divisions, yet she transcends the distinctions and unites the entire world in one and undivided body.

The racial and national divisions existing during the time of the Apostles still exist today. Even idolatry powerfully introduces itself in both the non-Christian and Christian worlds in one of its most ancient forms, that of covetousness. The present age believes in money and is directed by capital. Capital governs man, corrupts his morals, shapes his social life and determines political choices.

The Holy Bible and the Fathers of the Church directly relate man’s freedom and justification to a detachment from money and to the broadening of one’s conscience to embrace the entire world. The Gospel indicates the metaphysical dimensions that money potentially acquires transforming itself and becoming Mammon.(4)

St. Paul says that avarice is idolatry.(5) The Fathers of the Church also condemn avarice as a crime.(6) However, the contraction of the ecumenical conscience of a Christian and the return to a nationalistic outlook of perception is also to be identified with idolatry.

Man has infinite value. In himself the persona is a kind of centre capable of containing in himself the whole fullness of divinity and humanity.(7) This is the claim of Christian anthropology, which is neglected by the Christian world but preserved in Orthodox Theology. It is true that on a moral and social level the traditionally Orthodox peoples may not hold a superior position compared to the non-Orthodox. This is because of the secularization that began in the West and was ultimately transplanted in the East, resulting in disadvantaging the Orthodox. The desire to imitate and the inherent difficulty to assimilate and exploit foreign cultural elements created personal and social turmoil. Nevertheless, the superiority of Orthodoxy stems from its theological foundations. Orthodoxy remains as a pure truth of Christian Faith. In the Orthodox Church, Christian truth is unspoiled and the eschatological perspective of Christianity is preserved. This is Orthodoxy’s greatest value and this guarantees the quality of what the Church profess to the world.

For the Orthodox, self-criticism and repentance is essential. From this perspective we see the challenge the Orthodox Church faces with globalization. When the spirit of the world in the form of avarice, love for power, religious syncretism, nationalism, liberalism or conservatism, entraps Orthodoxy in the inevitable web of corruption and death, the reduction or relativization of Orthodoxy’s absolute and universal spirit can be fatal.

Should the Orthodox Church rest upon a conventional presence in the contemporary world, should the Church fail to respond to today’s challenges with Christ’s universal spirit, man will be without help. Man will submit to globalization’s homogenization. However, if the Church fosters the spirit of Tradition on a personal and community level, the truth of Christ’s universality will trump the illusion of globalization.

Present perspectives are disappointing. All phenomena betray the crisis and portend the inevitable explosion. If man’s focus is on individual interests and man neglects fellow-man, society is undermined and is lead to an impasse. The economic growth model becomes the author of self-destruction. The rich grow richer with modern capitalism since wealth is retained by those that are wealthy. The poor grow poorer because the model’s cyclical fluctuations and inherent need to sustain viability affect the income of the poor the most. This process can only lead to self-implosion.

The solution shall surface only when man decides to turn his eyes outward to his surroundings; when he decides to follow a basic Christian precept: "Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others."(8) When everyone takes interest in their fellow-man, when the interests of others are in our focus, when man recognizes the benefit of others as the ultimate goal of work, then man will take the right place in human society. At that time man shall ascertain that his true self, his true being, lies in his neighbour.

Yet, all these are not simply human choices. They emerge as a consequence of man’s spiritual rebirth. Specifically, they spring as fruits of man’s participation in the life of Christ. The one who follows Christ and becomes a partaker of His death and resurrection, enters into the perspective of His universality. Whether the individual is an ordained priest or lay person, he is summoned to bear the grace of the "royal priesthood"(9) and to offer services in the work of the reconciliation of the whole world, which is accomplished through Christ. This requires intense asceticism and prayer, which in turn reveals the image of God in man.(10)

Every person, and Humanity as a whole, are an image of God. This iconological character of man makes necessary the nexus between man and God. When a person ceases to reflect God in his being, he becomes self-deleted. He becomes the image of nothing. Man’s reference to God is what gives substance to his hypostasis. It makes man a partaker of the Divine Being, a god by grace: "I say, you are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you."(11)

Such a high perspective for man and his life forms the ideal of the Orthodox Church. Besides, the Church is a "communion of deification".(12) The Church is the community constituted by the Presence of the Holy Spirit which elevates us to the status of the Universality of Christ. Yet, this elevation of humanity is concurrently given and demanded. It is offered as a donation from Christ in His Church, but it also has to be accomplished by the faithful through the activation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This achievement is not a painless process, yet it becomes possible by the means of humility and kenotic [i.e. self-emptying] love.

Man cannot easily chasten himself or get rid of his egotism to accept his fellow-man. Although the loving disposition is inherent to human nature, a lack of true love does characterize the "fallen" man. True love is revealed only through the sacrifice of egotism. The model for this love is the Triune God. Unity in the Holy Trinity is accomplished through the kenotic and loving inter-penetration of the Divine Persons, thereby being the model for the unity of Humanity and for the creation of the communion of deification.

Such love was revealed to the world by Christ. This kind of love is what the Orthodox Church proposes to man for his salvation, which is identified with his becoming a universal person. In the Church the believer is called to live the universal tragedy which runs through history, in order to proceed through repentance to the universal reconciliation, to the catholic communion of love. In this way the entire world is fraternized and every man is opened to universality.

The ascendance to such a perspective of life requires great effort. The created and corruptible man is summoned to assume the ethos of the uncreated and timeless Being. Undoubtedly, this is not achieved by his powers only. Orthodox Theology always speaks about the synergy between God and man. The limit of this synergy is death. In the final analysis, death proves man’s fidelity to God and his faith that death has been defeated. In this way the barrier of death is broken down and the new creation of the New Covenant is revealed. That is why, according to St Paul, the New Testament is not "man’s gospel".(13)

Many people characterize our age as a post-Christian age. This must mean two things: First, that the former ages were Christian. Moreover, that our age is no longer Christian and that Christianity has nothing more to offer. This premise is twice mistaken. Because neither the former period was Christian, nor is the potential of Christianity ever exhausted, with nothing more to offer for the present and future. This does not mean that Christianity has not affected the past and the present. It means that Christianity has not been lived in its authentic dimensions by the masses.(14)

Christianity is person-centred. The individual is not seen as being subject to the impersonal whole, nor juxtaposed to the community. Christianity perceives the person as being in communion in the Church, and sees in every man the ability to reflect in his person all humanity. Consequently, Christianity does not seek to amend society by altering social structures. It seeks the amendment of society in the amendment of each person. In this perspective Christianity prioritizes the internal unification of man, which is achievable through the reunion of the intellect to the heart. In this reunion lies the essence of godly hesychia (i.e. quietude, quiet contemplation or solitude; the practice of the prayer of the heart), a basic element of Orthodox Tradition.

In our turbulent age the reminiscence of hesychia seems unrealistic. This does not mean that it is beyond one’s reach or, worse, that it is useless. Orthodox hesychia means not stagnancy or dullness but self-concentration and intense activity on the level of the inner man. It is the presupposition for the internal reorganization of man and the establishment of his relationship with God and his neighbour. In the confusion of noises and information that our present society offers, man can easily lose his identity and humanity. Unless he concentrates on himself and returns to a true relationship with God and his fellow-man, all human progress is condemned to annihilation. That is why devout hesychia is a priority which leads to man’s perfection. This is in essence real social activism and missionary work.(15)

Orthodox Theology was cultivated throughout the ages through internal hesychia, which creates the conditions for the spiritual experience and for the avoidance of the alienating influence of the world.(16) The witness of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world will be authentic and convincing only if it comes out of silence and hesychia. Hesychia, as perceived by Orthodoxy, can bring about a creative explosion of activity, which is man’s only hope amidst the suffocating fetters masterly scattered to the entire world by recent globalization. This spiritual explosion will promote the disclosure of the authentic human person in the impersonal globalized society. The counter-offer of the Orthodox Church to activistic globalization is the hesychastic universality.

The authentic human is universal. In this universal person the world can find its universality. The Saints were such persons. In the person of the Saint the whole of creation is sanctified. Moreover, in the principal holy figure, the Mother of God, lies the "universal joy"(17) and the "universal glory".(18) Unless we see the ontological content of the human person in this unfathomable depth we can not rightly experience the mystery of the Church.

The Orthodox Church, with her theological and ascetic tradition summed up in the Divine Liturgy, preserved the aforementioned perspective, something that can not be affirmed for the western theological tradition. Principal tenets of Orthodox Theology and asceticism, such as the teaching about the real communion between God and the world, the kenotic love, which culminates in the love for the enemies, and hesychasm, which rescues the priority of the human person, form essential presuppositions for the restoration of the alienated Christian world.

In the Divine Liturgy the believer experiences the communion with God and the whole world. He participates in kenotic love and is instructed in the application of this love for all people. He enters eternity, he renders incorruptible the created nature and he lives the universality. The Divine Liturgy and other services, give the believer the proper impulse for the right life as embodied in the petition "for the peace of the whole world". Thus, the believer evolves into an authentic person, into a universal man. In this way man’s desire for universality is satiated and man is properly armed to face the perils of globalization.

The above-mentioned are a treasure entrusted to the Orthodox Church. Here lies the Church’s importance and monumental responsibility. The witness of Orthodoxy is not a confessional case, because it is of a catholic and universal significance. It is a witness emanating from her quality as the Catholic and Apostolic Church. Meanwhile it is the witness which has to be given, so that we can cherish hope for the future.

The truth of the Orthodox Church is testified not in the air but in the hearts of the Orthodox. It is not offered with reference to the past but through experience and activation in the present. Today, at a time when the world considers money as the measure of all things, when mankind is governed by money and deifies money, the witness of Orthodoxy must be given through the scorn of money, through the crumbling of this false god. This witness must be primarily given by Orthodox monasticism as well as by the whole body of the Church.

If the world is induced to believe that everything can be bought with money, it is necessary to see authentic forms of life, such as an Orthodox cenobitic monastery, or a traditional family, which remain free from money. Moreover, the world must be informed that with money only "the inferior and the insignificant things" can be bought, whereas "the necessary which constitutes our life" are common to all.(19) The money of the whole world, and the world itself, is nothing compared with the value of only one man, of only one human soul.(20)

1. Magazine Pemptousia 4 (Dec.2000-March 2001) p.38.

2. Matt. 28:19

3. John 4:22

4. Luke 16:9-13

5. Col. 3:5

6. St Basil, Sermon on the verse “I will pull down my barns” 7 , PG 31,276B.

7. Arch. Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is, Essex 1988, p. 197.

8. Philip. 2:4

9. 1 Peter 2:5, 9

10. Gen. 1:27

11. Psalm 82:6-7

12. St Gregory Palamas, "Homily on the Holy Spirit" 2 ,78 in P. Christou, Gregory Palamas: Works, vol.1, Thessaloniki 1962, p.149.

13. Galatians 1:11

14. Archim. Sophrony, On Prayer, Essex 1994(2), p.97 (Greek).

15. Isaac the Syrian, "Sermon 23". Ed. Ioannis Spetsieris, p.93.

16. "Be still and know that I am God" - Psalm 46:10

17. Sticheron of the Vespers of the 9th of September.

18. Doxastikon of the Vespers of Saturday (1st mode).

19. St John Chrysostom, "Sermon on the Statues" 2,6, PG 49,43

20. Matt. 16:26

Source: Translated by Koutloumousiou Monastery, Mount Athos.

Please Visit Our Sponsors

BannerFans.com