Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sobriety and novelty

When speaking to gung-ho Western Christians today, it's hard to avoid being smacked in the face with their passionate enthusiasms and hobbyhorses, whether it's the latest church plant, the latest papal encyclical or book, the latest theological speculation or cultural fad, the latest activist, collectivist, do-gooder "movement of the Spirit."

Whether Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, in much of Christian America there's a certain lust for the spiritual high, a yearning for a special knowledge or experience of God that only the select few are granted, a grasping for a liberation from mundane, commonplace existence, a longing to be swept up to the heavens by some new group identity. Nothing new here. Academics call it gnostic elitism or something like that.

But I've grown to appreciate the Eastern Church's emphasis on vigilant sobriety of the mind and heart. I'm deeply drawn to their quasi-instinctive resistance to fads, a resistance which, it is important to note, is not new and intimately tied to the plain teaching of Christ and the Apostles. Western traditionalists are resistant to fads only to the extent they can distinguish an old fad from a tradition, which is to say not very resistant.

At any rate, it's always good to watch Eastern Christians practice what they preach. From Orthodox media, I've heard mostly enthusiastic praise for Fr. Seraphim Rose, who has been touted as the Eastern Thomas Merton (never sure if we're supposed to take that as compliment to Rose). So it's encouraging to see intellectual sobriety applied by one Orthodox towards a specifically Orthodox phenom.
I do not promote Fr Seraphim Rose because he represents a very rigorous form of Orthodoxy that is also committed to excessive speculation, especially about the afterlife. His ideas fuel a kind of Orthodox elitism which causes people to look down on others as being not truly Orthodox.

Fr Seraphim's ideas also are taken up by those who feel they must live as radically Orthodox as possible, and startle the world with their extreme expressions of otherworldliness.

For me, the heart of Orthodoxy is Christ, and the life in Christ is the Orthodox way, following behind the Master, doing what we see Him doing, saying what He says.


I said “I do not promote” Fr Seraphim Rose, and neither do I condemn him. Whether his ideas are false or true, our good and loving God knows, who holds us all tenderly and forgivingly in His hands. As for the man, I hope he is what all who follow Christ are.
His note against condemning Fr. Rose is crucial as well. The typical traditionalist will be vigilant against all deviations or extrapolations from the tradition, but he will usually be quick to judge and condemn, invariably causing an equally forceful defense and digging in of heels from the innovators.

The sobriety comes into play when we refrain from impassioned, unilateral judgment and condemnation, which only has the appearance of vigilant defense of the tradition, but remains lacking in vigilance towards one's own ego. Fidelity to tradition must be in the first place vigilant and sober against oneself.