Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fr. Georges Massouh: What is Orthodoxy?

While this essay is a couple years old-- it was published in Majallat al-Nour in February, 2009 (Arabic original here), it makes for interesting reading when read alongside his recent essay about primarily Islamic religious discourse in the Arab Spring, as it applies some of this same thinking to Orthodoxy.

What is Orthodoxy?

"Orthodoxy" is a quality that encompasses two things: correctness in belief and correctness in life. It is not possible to consider someone Orthodox if he is not correct in dogma and in all its ethical implications. Dogma is not theoretical teaching or sterile philosophy, without fruit in a person's life. Rather, it is the base upon which the faithful build their life, their behavior, and their everyday opinions. One who believes in the cross of the Lord Jesus and in His resurrection from the dead, for example, cannot refuse to bear the cross to which he is called, because in doing so he would contradict what he claims to believe or would render useless the effects of that in which he believes. The same goes for any other dogma.

There is no correctness of belief without correctness of life. Orthodoxy is not complete without this harmony that is supposed to exist between teaching and application. "The rule of faith is the rule of worship" and "the rule of worship is the rule of faith." The Orthodox life rests on the basis of these two expressions. Acts of worship are an essential part of the formation of a proper Orthodox personality, and love of one's neighbor is another part that is no less important than acts of worship. What applies to the saying about the relationship between dogma and acts of worship also applies to the relationship between dogma and one's way of life and between acts of worship and one's way of life. If one strand of this knot is dissolved, then the whole knot dissolves.

However, the way that Orthodoxy expresses the faith and worship occurs within what we have come to call culture and culture is variable and not fixed. This does not at all mean that the faith is variable, but that faith can adopt various forms in order express itself according to civilizational, cultural, linguistic, and ethnic environments. If Christianity had arisen in a world other than the Hellenistic world, then the expression of the faith-- but not the faith itself-- would be different from what has come down to us through the living tradition of the Church. If the Creed was a sufficient expression of faith, then there would have been no need to explain it and comment upon it, according to the knowledge of each successive generation, from when it was set down until the present day.

The expression of the one faith, as it exists in the civilizational, cultural, linguistic, and social environment of every people, can take various forms in one era and can change from one era to another. For Russians to eat fish during Lent, except on Wednesdays and Fridays, the first and fourth weeks, and Holy Week, does not mean that their fast is incomplete. Their climate does not provide them with things that make it possible to go without fish. That the Russians do not use the Byzantine tones in their prayers does not mean that their faith is in some way lacking. For married priests to shave their beards does not mean that they have departed from the Orthodox faith. For women on their period to start partaking of the holy gifts is something praiseworthy, and not an unacceptable defilement. It is the very core of our faith that there is no purity that a human being can acquire spontaneously and so consequently there is no involuntary impurity.

Thus it is necessary to distinguish between that which is fixed and essential-- that which if it is absent, Orthodoxy is absent-- and that which springs from human culture and so by its own nature is variable. A question from a Muslim brother attracted my attention to this when he noticed that we depict the Virgin with a veil and that nuns wear a veil. The point for him being that the ideal Christian woman is veiled. So why, he asked me, are your women unveiled? I added to the examples he mentioned what the Apostle Paul said about women covering their head. Then I tried to explain to him that the Apostle Paul's point, and Christian teaching in general, is to encourage people to exercise virtue, piety, and modesty. His point was not to mandate veils forever. The veil is not the point in itself, but rather the acquisition and preservation of chastity and purity of spirit is the point. Wanting to wear a veil and wanting to not wear a veil are both acceptable.

And so we must pay attention to the distinction between that which is essential and that which is  cultural and we must be careful not to confuse that which distinguishes Orthodoxy in various times, circumstances, contexts and environments, and that which can change without effecting its essence. The religious fanaticism that afflicts us, just as it affects people of others religions and denominations, gets its start from a lack of distinction between what is essential and what is accidental. Orthodoxy is too good to be limited to habits and traditions that many times hide God from the faithful.

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