Sunday, February 15, 2009

Orthodoxy: Conservative or Radical?

The Fall 2008 issue of The Intercollegiate Review is dedicated in large part to the memory of the late conservative thinker William F. Buckley, Jr. Two passages from his writing cited in this issue particularly struck me. The first is from a speech given by Buckley in 1986, cited by T. Kenneth Cribb, Jr., in his memorial article. Attempting to define the true Renaissance man, Buckley writes:
He is not the man who, with aplomb, can fault the Bearnaise sauce at Maxim’s before attending a concert at which he detects a musical solecism, returning to write an imperishable sonnet, before preparing a lecture on civics that the next day will enthrall an auditorium. No: the Renaissance man is, I think, someone who bows his head before the great unthreatened truths and, while admitting and even encouraging all advances in science, nevertheless knows enough to know that the computer does not now exist, nor ever shall, that has the power to repeal the basic formulas of civilization.
The second quotation is from Buckley 1959 classic, Up From Liberalism:
The exhortations to go truth-seeking are deafening. They are perfectly intelligible when the quest is for a cancer-cure, or some such thing – but it is not over the cancer-hunters that the fusses… are made. Other truths than scientific and methodological ones have no objective existence, the liberals… contend, and therefore cannot be apprehended… As for the young scholars, they know, in their hearts, that the exhortation nowadays reduces to “Ye shall seek the truth as though it existed; and in the seeking of it, ye shall be made free.” … The conservative emphasis is different. Conservatives do not deny the existence of undiscovered truths, but they make a critical assumption, which is that those truths have already been apprehended are more import to cultivate than those undisclosed ones close to the liberal group in the sense that the fruit was close to Tantalus… Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.
These are profound and compelling thoughts, particularly in view of the dominant prejudice that the natural sciences alone provide the correct paradigm for apprehending the truth. (Much of Fr Andrew Louth’s classic Discerning the Mystery responds to just this.) I think Buckley is perfectly correct when referring to philosophy, and in particular to political philosophy. But I suspect that he words could not be taken to apply to theology (not that he himself intended them to be so taken). Orthodoxy cannot be made equivalent with conservatism, however that problematic term may be understood. Nor should it simply be called radical, although Fr Louth says as much in his Foreword to Fr John Behr's The Way to Nicaea: "Orthodoxy is radical, not conservative." Orthodoxy, it would seem to me, is at once conservative and radical (avoiding the political implications of these terms as much as one can). It is conservative in that it does indeed believe that the whole fullness of Truth has been revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, and that a search for Truth must always, in a sense, be backward looking: above all to the Holy Scriptures and Holy Tradition. It is radical, though, in the sense that it is always returning to the root (Latin, radicalis) of things: Tradition maintains its validity only to the extent that it truly and accurately reflects the image of the Living Christ. Moreover, there is something finally important that is not in fact behind us: the return of the Bridegroom at the consummation of time. It is this that Bishop Atanasije characterizes, in a passage I posted some time ago, as "a future nostalgia, an eschatological nostalgia for the future." Conservatism is essentially reactionary and pessimistic (and rightfully so, much of the time); radicalism is often anti-historical and optimistic. Christianity, however, accepts both the fallenness of man and his deification in Christ; it accepts both that the Evil One is the prince of this world and that Christ has conquered evil. Orthodoxy contains within itself both the backward-looking pessimism of conservatism and the forward-looking optimism of radicalism. (What the political implications of this, however, remains another question.) Christ, indeed, is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the ending... which is, and which was, and which is to come (Rev 1:8).


Simka said...

First of all, I want to Greet you with the Feast of the Meeting. Welcome back to the "hyperspace". You were sorely missed!
I think that we find pigeonholing Orthodoxy into conservative or radical categories difficult precisely because the Truth of the Church, while continually descending like an invisible dew to sanctify and transfigure the world, ultimately transcends time. While this transcendence of time does not cancel out the fact that secular-chronological time has a real meaning for our salvation, Orthodox Truth resists any attempt to be grounded in a temporal order with which the secular, political categories of "conservative" and "radical" are chiefly associated.
"Tradition" as we all well know, is based in a Latin word meaning something like "handing down". Make no mistake: this is not a handing down of some profane object, teaching, or event from discrete moments in the past - no matter how historically significant they may be - to fill up otherwise meaningless and discrete moments of today. Essentially, the trajectory of this "handing down" follows a metaphysical, rather than temporal, path from a higher level of reality (Heaven) to a lower (earth). Thus, the event of Pascha which we celebrated in 2008 is actually closer to the Crucifixion than the event of the signing of the Declaration of Indenpendence in 1776, or the Fall of Rome in the fifth century.
The eternal nature of Orthodox Truth manifests itself on our "plane of reality" (for lack of a better expression) in kairotic events which appear temporally diverse, but are, in fact, united typologically. A perfect example of this is the Tree of Life, the archetype of which appears at least three times in sacred history (Genesis, the Gospels, the Apocalypse), but which in fact stands for a singular, eternal Truth which, in heaven, is a unified reality imbued with God's uncreated energy. Once again, we are not blocked from enjoying and being blessed by the uncreated energy that emerges from the realm of eternity through history to the realm of time. But these sanctifying energies cannot be said to originate in anything so profane as the temporal order.
In the last analysis, the Orthodox believer looks neither to a profane past, a modern present, nor a utopic future for his hope, but to the eternal "TODAY" of the Gospels, in illo tempore. Thus, we can not be said to be conservative, liberal, or radical. The source of our hope is handed down "from above".
I propose that we Orthodox do everything we can to disabuse ourselves of worldly politically-based labels fallaciously describing ideological positions that we should in fact shun, and instead - if we must be labeled - strive to simply be known as radical traditionalists.

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