North Hall Society

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Anti-Western Orthodoxy

Sean Fagan recently called my attention to an article by Jason Byassee entitled "Looking East: The Impact of Eastern Orthodoxy" (The Christian Century , December 28, 2004). The article struck me as being an excellent specimen of ebullient hooey.

First, the article, obviously by a Protestant, is so obviously enamoured of all the self-congratulatory nonsense fed to him by the Eastern Orthodox person(s) he interviewed, that it looses any semblance of objectivity.

Second, the Eastern Orthodox views and attitudes parroted by the author remind me, once again, why Eastern Orthodoxy could best be described as Anti-Western Orthodoxy, since it seems incapable of defining its own identity in terms other than opposition to the West, whether Protestant or Catholic. It altogether loses sight of the fact that its own tradition, despite whatever cultural differences that emerged between the Greek and Latin divisions of the Roman Empire, is seamlessly Catholic up until and even substantially beyond AD 1054, that all Christians-- East and West-- accepted not only the Primacy but Supremacy of Rome and the unity of the Orthodox and Catholic Faith. (See for example the early testimony of St. Maximus the Confessor and the early Popes, or the witness of the Eastern Acacian Schism of 484-519.)

For example, when Jason Byassee draws a contrast at the beginning of this article between all the debates and dualizations of the West between Protestant and Catholic, on the one hand, and the unity transcending such debates and dualities found among the Orthodox, on the other hand, he's parroting Eastern Orthodoxy's paradigmatic self-identification as non-Western, as independent of all these false problems and futile dualizations of the West. On this view, Catholics and Protestants debate endlessly whether conversion is by grace or free will; whether theological disputes are adjudicated by the Bible or tradition; whether the Church's authority resides in pope, bishops, or the faithful; and over such dualizations as those between academic theology and sacred worship-- whereas Eastern Orthodoxy remains a bystanding observer removed from the fray, sadly lamenting all this Western foolishness in its own wise realization that these are all false dualities and that the truth of the matter resides in the duality-transcending unity of its own surpassing unitive wisdom. On this view, Western theology (whether Catholic or Protestant) is rationalistically compartmentalized into fragmentary disciplines focused on Scripture, ecclesiology, Church history, systematic theology, pastoral ministry, etc., whereas Eastern Orthodoxy, in its wisdom, understands that theology is ultimately no more than doxological prayer and worship. On this view, Western theology is centered either atomistically on "individuals" or on an impartial "they," while Eastern Orthodoxy, in its divine wisdom, is conducted in the first-person plural "we," in the understanding that theology is a loving word of praise to God who first speaks His Word to us in Christ and by the Spirit draws us into the communion of the Holy Trinity.

Of course, all this is very beautiful and sublime and enticing; which misses the point, however, that it is all a piece of historical fiction fabricated in opposition to a straw man, at least as far as Catholic tradition is concerned. For Catholic tradition has never insisted against Protestants that conversion is by free will in opposition to divine grace, but both. Catholic tradition has never insisted against Protestants that theological disputes are to be adjudicated by appeal to the Church's Sacred Tradition in opposition to the Bible, because the Bible is part of Sacred Tradition and may never be contradicted by Church teaching. Catholic tradition has never insisted against Protestants (or the Orthorox) that the church's authority resides exclusively in popes in opposition to bishops or the faithful, but in the college of bishops in unity with the pope in the context of the historical sensus fidelium ("sense of the faithful"). Catholic tradition has never assumed (against the Orthodox) that its Faith, whose diverse aspects are the subject of different divisions of theological inquiry, are meant to be divorced from the Church's life of prayer and worship, but rather has always insisted proverbially that "the law of prayer is the law of faith" (lex orandi, lex credendi). Catholic tradition has never focused impartially on atomistic "individuals" to the exclusion of the first-person plural "we," but always maintained that salvation is a matter of incorporation through baptism into the mysterious "Body of Christ," or that Church membership is a matter of being received aboard the "Ark of Salvation" in the company of the Communion of Saints.

In short, all of this enthusiasm about Orthodoxy's unique, non-Western identity is not merely misleading and dishonest, but the bad fruit of pernicious historical resentments and willful self-deception. Many Eastern Orthodox theologians, like many Protestant ones, have profound gifts of biblical, theological, and spiritual insight that should be appreciated and celebrated by all Christians. But efforts of contemporary Eastern Orthodox Christians to elevate themselves by falsely derogating, disparaging, or otherwise detracting from Catholic (or Protestant) tradition in this fashion simply exhibits the degree to which Eastern Orthodoxy has fallen from its claim to embody the universal Church and succumbed to a negativism that is most aptly described as Anti-Western Orthodoxy.