Orthodox Fundamentalism

Bishop Seraphim : Talk
Orthodox Fundamentalism
Christ the Saviour Church
Chicago, Illinois
13 November, 2002

We human beings have a tendency to go to extremes. Sometimes we are really liberal, and sometimes we are really conservative ; more often we are reactionary in one way or another. So it is in politics ; so it is in society and its mores ; so it is in human relationships. Perhaps it could be said that what we are consistent about is being inconsistent. Every time I think about these things, I feel exasperated that we do not, as a supposedly intelligent race, seem to learn much in the process. I often marvel at God’s inexhaustible patience with us. Truly, if it were I in charge (or likely if any one of us were in charge), the earth would have been cleansed of us all a long time ago. Also, as I am ageing, I find that, when I am asked : “What’s new ?”, I respond much as Qoheleth, the Preacher, in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and even, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2), and “all is vanity, and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).

No, do not call for the electroshock-therapists ! I am not depressed ; I am not in despair. I am bothered by the fact that we humans cannot manage to make progress where it counts. It bothers me that not only I, but most of us, cannot manage to see the good examples in the good people that God sends to us, nor can we seem to manage to hear Him speak to us through them. We do not really change much. We make almost the same mistakes as humans have always made, and this even though we are Christians, and are called by His Name.

One of the reasons, of course, that we are not making much progress is that we cannot keep our hearts and minds off ourselves. It has always been so : God reveals Himself to us in His love ; we respond, but not in a lasting or comprehending way. Fundamentally, we are so taken with ourselves that we cannot bear to let God be in control of everything. We cannot bear not knowing all the details. We have to be in control, ourselves ; and so we try to box in God, as it were, to make Him more manageable to us.

All this little rant brings me to address more directly our topic of Orthodox fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a phenomenon which has always been with us to some extent, but it seems to me that in these days we are perhaps seeing rather more of it. Not only do we see more of it, but it is, in my opinion, appearing in strange ways. It is always for me a bit difficult to distinguish between fundamentalism and reaction, because they are very close kin.

In the West, we have long lived with the phenomenon of Protestantism, which is clearly characterised by the elements of reaction and also of zealotry. Zealotry can be another word for this sort of fundamentalism. In the East, although we certainly have known zealotry, we have not experienced a reaction quite like that of Protestantism. We have, nevertheless, experienced the schism of the Old Believers, a movement which has exhibited elements of both zealotry and reaction : a schism which we rather brought on ourselves, and which is a study in itself. There are also the recent schisms concerning the old and new calendars.

Zeal for Your house has devoured me”, reads Psalm 68:10, which is cited by the Apostle and Evangelist John after he describes Christ’s cleansing of the Temple (John 2:17). Seeing what they think is wrong with the majority of Orthodox Christians, and forgetting the meaning of the second part of that sentence, some of us fall into the temptation of trying to cleanse the Church as Christ did. So we find ourselves facing various fragments of people, separated off into special groups, who compare themselves to Saints Athanasius, Maximus the Confessor, Mark of Ephesus, and others. They consider themselves to be a remnant ; and, like Esdras or the Maccabees, they want to preserve and rebuild something pure. The problem with this fear-based mentality, however, is that the concern to protect leads to an attitude of exclusion, and even a sectarian exclusivistic mentality, the antithesis of the Orthodox Church. What about the second part of the verse, then ? The second part of the sentence says, “and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me”. The application of this psalm, so rich in its connexion to Christ’s Passion, needs balance if we really are to live according to it ourselves. If we are zealous for God’s house, then we must be ready to share Christ’s suffering in love.

How well I remember witnessing the encounter of one of our hermits with Pope Shenouda III, many years ago. This hermit, finding himself in a sort of dead end, was looking for a sense of direction. Pope Shenouda had been a hermit. Then, for more than a half-hour they debated various scriptural texts. It seemed to me that the debate progressed from Genesis to the Apocalypse (it was mostly in Arabic, and not easy for me to follow). There was at that moment no apparent clear resolution. Finally, after a silence, Pope Shenouda said : “It is tempting to be found busy about the House of the Lord, but it is necessary to be found busy about the Lord of the House”. This was the looked-for answer, providentially given. Here we see an example of one central Orthodox characteristic : balance.

Another monk I know asked the saintly Elder Paisios of Mount Athos about the zealotry we are seeing so much of these days. His response was that the zealots have lost balance, and that they are living in their heads (thoughts and reason), not in their hearts. He said that for such zealots the head and the heart are not united. However, when the heart and head are united, then in their union there will be balance.

In this vein also I remember well that there was a colloquium in Montréal a few years ago, which I attended. It was convened at the same time that a meeting of international leaders was taking place in Québec City, where there were the usual protests while the leaders met behind a protective barrier. The question was raised : “Where are the Orthodox in this case — with the leaders inside, or the protesters outside ?” The answer was : “With those on the fence !” The illustration says simply that the Middle Way, the way of balance, is the typical Orthodox position.

According to the Saviour, the foundation of our life is the Summary of the Law :

‘You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’ (Matthew 22:37-40).

In my opinion, it is the loss of this “prime directive” already given in 5 Moses (Deuteronomy) 6:5, and the development of a fear of breaking the Law in any way, and offending God in any way (most particularly because His wrath was paid attention to more than His love), that led to the development of the excesses of the Pharisees. Yet, instead of protecting God’s Law about the relationship of love between us and Him, and therefore also the relationship of love with all human beings (and even all creatures), the Pharisees produced a burden of observance that was impossible to bear, and produced the rebukes by the Saviour given in Matthew 23:1-23. Indeed, it seems to me that there has been a distinction made between the Law, and Him who gave it. It is in making the Law something different from what the Lord intended it to be that can lead to this difficulty. We Orthodox cannot point the finger at others, because when we lose the balance between the heart and the reasoning faculties, we very easily turn our canons (which are simply medicinal methods for spiritual healing and correction) into a legal taskmaster – turning righteousness into the process of so-called justice. One might even go so far as to say that this already happened in the days of the Roman Empire, when emperors turned some canons into imperial laws (nomocanons).

Saul (as the Apostle Paul was then called) was a zealot of this type : a Pharisee of the Pharisees. However, the Saviour met him, and changed him, as we see in his Epistle to the Galatians 1:11-24, and in his speech in Acts 22:3-21 (to which it is important to refer here, as well as to refer to Acts 9:1-22). As we in our own zealotry, so he had forgotten the following prophetic words :

‘Behold, I have given You for a covenant of a race, for a light of [the] Gentiles, so that You might be for salvation unto the end of the earth.' Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, who delivers You: ‘Sanctify the one despising his life, who is abhorred by the nations [Gentiles], the bond-servants of princes. Kings shall see him, and princes shall arise and they shall worship him for the sake of the Lord; for the Holy One of Israel is faithful, and He chose you’ (Isaiah 49:6-7, LXX).

Always, too, we are tempted to think in terms of justice in our relationship with God. Indeed we westerners seem to prefer to use this word in translations, when our Saviour is speaking to us about righteousness – which is rather a different kettle of fish. He says to us that the Law is still in force, and that, ‘Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:20).

However, all this is to be understood in the context of love. The Law is given because of love. It does not drive us towards God through the following of a series of legal prescriptions, which, if we fail to observe them will cause painful penalties. Rather, this Law, springing from God’s love, is a description of how a person who truly loves God will behave – first towards God, and then towards fellow human beings. Of course, out of love we would allow no other substitute or interloper to come between ourselves and the Father. Of course, worshipping Him would be a priority in our lives. Of course, out of love, we would honour our parents, and we would avoid and refrain from stealing from anyone (which includes cheating), killing anyone, committing adultery, bearing false witness and coveting. All this is the product of this love, the living of which is described as righteousness. It is the product of faith in love. Later, in the Sermon on the Mount, after giving us the Our Father, our Saviour shows us the way : ‘For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses’ (Matthew 6:14-15).

Again, remembering the foundations of the Christian Way, and following Him who is the Way, we must remember always this exhortation of the Apostle John :

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us. [...] There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. We love Him, because He first loved us. If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen (1 John 4:7-20).

It is not that the Apostle Paul himself, for all his strong words, was in any way lacking in love, patience, forbearance. On the contrary, although he called a spade a spade, his life of suffering, deprivation, and persecution was filled with, and propelled by love. He was full of love for God, having been put in correct focus at Damascus, and he yearned that everyone should know this love, and know and experience it as he did. Why else would he endure what he did ? Indeed, why would all the other martyrs do the same, right up to our times, except for that burning love ? Yet it is not a love out of focus, or out of balance.

If we are going to be true fundamentalists, and true zealots for the love of God, then let us be prepared to put Christ in the driver’s seat of our lives, and also of the Church of which He is the Head, after all. We need to remember the fundamentals of the loving relationship which the Lord has given us with Him, and all the implications for us that this brings. It means allowing this love to cast out fear. It means taking the Beatitudes, and the Our Father seriously, and living by them. It means knowing the Law, and living it out. It means loving God above all, as Saint Herman exhorts us. It means, with God’s help, reducing the multitude of extra details of our lives to only what is necessary. It means living in true freedom in Christ. It means remembering the Commission that Christ gave us :

‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28:18-20).