July 19, 2010

The Character of Orthodoxy

by George Mantzarides

"As the prophets have seen, as the Apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have set forth in dogmas, as the world has understood… so we believe, so we speak, so we preach… This is the faith of the Apostles; this is the faith of the Fathers; this is the faith of the Orthodox; this faith has established the world."

Orthodoxy is not a particular Christian confession, but has a general and trans-temporal character. Orthodoxy was not created by abstractions and divisions, but is the single and unified truth. It is the truth of the Church, the truth of the body of Christ, which is shared and not divided, which is distributed and unifies. The truth of Orthodoxy is the fact of God’s love for mankind; it is the gift of the divine economy, which creates in the faithful a corresponding obligation and a corresponding responsibility: the obligation and the responsibility for peace and unity among them.

In 842 AD, after the whirlwind of the war against the icons, which had brought back in a new form the old christological heresies, the peace and unity of the Church was restored in the life of her members. Thus, God’s gift appeared again in the life of the faithful. The fact of the faith appeared once more as a mark of everyday life. Of course, even in the most brilliant period of the Church’s history, the weakness of people who belong to her and who are often led into heresies and schisms does not cease to exist. The final triumph of the Church, the appearance of her indissoluble unity, will be realized in the eschaton [the last event], when the Church scattered in the world will be gathered into the kingdom of God.

But this does not at all mean to justify our not living [this] unity even now. Unity characterizes the nature of the Church. When we do not live [the] unity, we do not live as members of the Church. The Church is not some human organization in which unity might be deemed useful, but not completely necessary. The Church is the body of Christ, and the body of Christ cannot be understood without unity. Christ is one: His Church is one. In the Creed, we confess our faith “in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The many churches, or rather, the many Christian confessions, are constructions of men and not of God.

For some time, though, the Christian world has ceased to constitute one united community of faithful people, one Church. The faith, which the Apostles, the Fathers and the teachers of the undivided Church handed on, has not been kept unaltered everywhere. The worship has been broken up, the ethos alienated, the harmony destroyed, the tradition abandoned. Thus, a scandal has been created within the world, a scandal to which no Christian can remain indifferent.

The Orthodox Church is not one among the many churches. The Orthodox Church IS the undivided Church of Christ. It is the undivided Church of Christ, not because the Orthodox want it so, but because it has emerged so from the common Christian tradition.

Orthodoxy sustained the world, because it was always ecumenical. But it cannot persist as Orthodoxy, if it does not also persist as ecumenical. Orthodoxy is not intolerance. Orthodoxy is not conservatism. Orthodoxy is not status quo. Orthodoxy is not ethnicism. Intolerance exploits Orthodoxy and transforms it into a means of factionalism. Orthodoxy is disproved by intolerance so that its spirit disappears, a spirit of love and conciliation. Therefore, those who are intolerant cannot be Orthodox, however orthodox might be the words which they use. But conservatism can also kill the tradition of Orthodoxy and transform it into an ideology, usually to serve alien purposes. Not even some orthodox regime can be identified with Orthodoxy, which is the living tradition of truth and life. Orthodoxy is neither static nor conservative–Orthodoxy is dynamic and traditional. Nor is traditionalism conservatism, but creativity; it is not a condition, but life. Finally, Orthodoxy is not some ideology. Emphatically, it is not some ethnic ideology.

Of course, some have often attempted to use Orthodoxy as an ideology. This has been done not only by political leaders who pursued their own goals, but by clergy and by laity. The truth, as well as the freedom which truth offers (cf. Jn. 8:32), are weighty matters. Some abandon them easily or replace them with their false idols. It is easy for someone to trade in Orthodoxy, but it is difficult to live it. It is easy to boast of being Orthodox—especially when Orthodoxy happens to be in fashion—and to condemn others as apostates or heretics, but it is difficult to live the truth of Orthodoxy. Therefore, we often forget this truth and project our personal or collective desires and self-interest in its name. Thus, we falsify Orthodoxy much more than those whom we characterize as its enemies. When those whom we characterize as enemies of Orthodoxy judge and condemn our distorted Orthodoxy, instead of turning our glance on ourselves, in order to see our condition and to take care to correct it, we launch missiles at them, thinking that in this way we are fulfilling our obligation to Orthodoxy or even that we are becoming her confessors.

Orthodoxy is not an ideology, but truth and life. It honors the particularity of people, their language, their traditions, their customs. Just as Christ by his incarnation assumed the entire human nature, so also the Church of Christ, the Orthodox Church, assumes everything human within history. But also, as Christ did not assume sin, because this constitutes a condition contrary to nature for man, so also the Church, or better, those who wish to belong to the Church, to the everlasting and indivisible body of Christ, cannot allow states of sin to dominate in our lives and in our relationships. The freedom which Christ grants cannot be used “as a ground for the flesh,” but must be revealed by a spirit of love and mutual service (cf. Gal. 5:13). This freedom is not being unaccountable, but a call to free ourselves completely from the source of sin and division, which is our egoism—and to find in Christ the university of our nature.

In fact, many of the obstacles we meet daily would disappear, if this disposition were in us! How many contradictions would be put aside, if individual or party egoism did not dominate in our relationships! How many divisions would be cancelled, if national or confessional egoism did not prevail in our religious life! “If the salt has lost its taste,” says the Lord, “with what will it be salted?” (Mk. 9:50) If we Christians, or even if we Orthodox, who boast that we preserve unaltered the truth of Christ, do not take care to work in this direction, on whom are we waiting? The Church continually directs us to the goal of fighting against egoism in its different forms. Repentance, the life work of a Christian, has this same goal in view as well.

Orthodoxy is not some objectified value, which someone can use in accord with his tastes and desires. Orthodoxy is not a property of someone who thinks he owns it. No one can own Orthodoxy. He can only be owned by it. No one can enlist Orthodoxy in his schemes in order to condemn or fight others, in order to make or become fanatics. True Orthodoxy (we are not speaking of its falsifications) cannot be enlisted in anything else, but calls everyone to a universal enlistment. Otherwise, even Baptism in the Orthodox Church is nothing else than enrollment in it. The progress of the faithful in the Orthodox Church is realized to the extent that they make their enrollment in it effective, to the extent that they do not let egoism and its consequences dominate in their lives and empty their faith, their hope, and their love, leaving only the appearance of them.

When, then, we fell ourselves to be members of the Orthodox Church, members of the body of Christ, the divisions of the Christian world cannot be indifferent to us. The pain which these divisions provoke are our own pain. The concern for their elimination must be the concern of us all. But in order to help Christians of other confessions, we do not need to make compromises in our faith. By such compromises we betray both ourselves and them, because they need the Christian truth untainted. For us to help Christians of other confessions, especially now when circumstances bring us very near them, we need to turn to our own roots; we need to know our Orthodoxy better and to seek her universal and ecumenical truth.

Source: From Orthodox Spiritual Life, Holy Cross Orthodox Press 1994, pp. 1-5 (slightly edited)