Sober reflections on Orthodox Christian thought, culture, and spirituality

  • Walking the Tightrope of Faith

    We live in an age of extremes.  Our social, political, and religious landscape is marked by exaggeration and polarization.  And though we Christians are enjoined to live in the world yet not be of it, we are so easily drawn towards one side or the other.  We are unable to find the via media that denotes virtue.  Rather, we effortlessly swing towards vice, giving license to the passions.  Concern begets anxiety, anxiety begets fear, and fear begets rage.  How quickly our thoughts are tainted.

    Like every other sinner, we tend towards fundamentalism, concocting dichotomies every which way we turn.  Black or white.  Traditional or modern.  Liberal or conservative.  We eschew nuance and complexity in favor of simplistic concepts.  We fashion new narratives to justify our jaundiced worldview. Then we revel in painting our ideological opponents as wicked adversaries.  Why?  Because it would require too much effort (and charity) to research and consider multiple points of view.  It would require too much humility to admit we may be wrong.  And it would require too much love to see the other as a person made in the image of God.

    A lack of moderation amongst our people has led to an inability to hold two things in tension, to seek balance, or to reach understanding.  Consider, for example, the battle between academicians and simple believers.  The former cloister themselves in their institutions, insulated from any real concern for the people.  Their ilk exudes elitist arrogance.  Some even purposely obscure the truth in order to push forward their secret agenda.  In reaction to such real or perceived crimes, the latter often seek refuge in an anti-intellectual fortress constructed of untenable presuppositions.  No amount of data or reasonable argumentation will disabuse them of their worldview—even if they’ve built a house of cards.

    The same sort of opposition exists in the east-west dualism found in Orthodoxy.  On one side of this divide are those who believe occidental Christendom to be a realm of utter darkness.  They reject anything connected to the West, ignoring both historical reality and their own dependence on western thought, culture, and ingenuity.  On the other side of this divide are those who uncritically accept all that has arisen in the West.  They attempt to pave over differences and distinctions.  They even set themselves up as judges over the piety and praxis of the faithful in Orthodox lands.

    And then there is the dichotomy between rigorism and libertinism.  The rigorists bind salvation in servitude to rules, while the libertines confuse illness with health.  The rigorists mistake the ideal for reality, hence ignoring their own sins in the process.  The libertines imagine the ideal to be unobtainable, and therefore work to shift the benchmark.  Both ignore the fact that the Church is simultaneously a hospital for sinners and a society of saints. 

    How do we break free from this trap of extremism?  The Scriptures teach us that obtaining moderation is key.  According to St. Peter (2 Pet 1:5-7), as we pursue virtue (aretē) we eventually acquire knowledge (gnōsis), self-control (engkrateia), stability (upomonē), and piety (evsebeia), which are necessary steps on the path to love (agapē).  And according to the Church Fathers, the pursuit of virtue begins with asceticism.  It is only through a concentrated and prolonged discipline of the body and soul that we begin to rise above the passions; and it is only once we rise above the passions that we obtain balance.

    There is yet another step we must take to avoid extremism: reduce our exposure to unnecessary thoughts.  We are bombarded by many thousands of messages each day, every one vying for our attention.  None of these thoughts are neutral, but are impassioned pleas to our will: “Choose me,” “agree with me,” “side with me.”  Every video we watch, every post or meme we read, every article we peruse pushes us further in one direction.  In the midst of this onslaught, we lack the time to critically and prudently engage such ideas.  The thoughts that comply with our biases serve to bolster them, and those that do not are simply filtered out.  The only way to reverse this mechanism is to cut off our intake of information and make time for silence and careful consideration.

    When we begin to follow the path of asceticism and silence in earnest, we soon discover that the world is not so easily examined, but requires wisdom to make sense of.  As our passions are subdued, we let go of anger and angst and the desire to win debates.  As our sins come to light, we feel ashamed for judging others.  And as we realize that our ideas fail to meet the standards of the Gospel, we confront our cognitive dissonance for the first time.  In time, our body and soul are restored to spiritual health.  Only then can our minds hold in tension two seemingly opposing realities.  Only then do we begin to understand the mystery of Christ, which itself is hidden in an antinomy.

    The Orthodox Christian ethos is marked by many such profound paradoxes: tragic beauty, joyful mourning, and luminous darkness. We must lose our lives in order to gain them.  We must descend into the abyss in order to ascend to the heavens.  Until our hearts have been broken by the healing love of Christ, we have not yet experienced the way of the Saints.