Friday, 31 January 2014

An Orthodox Voice in a Western Wilderness

There has been a tendency for rebellious Westerners to reject their cultural heritage and to seek it in the East.  From the Beatles onwards this has been a popular trend, yet strangely these Westerners do not gravitate towards that great edifice of Eastern culture based on a view of truth West and East share, the Eastern Orthodox Church, but rather choose those manifestations of belief that renounce all that the West regards as most precious about our humanity.  So the rebellious Western youth chooses Buddhism, a philosophy of renunciation, rather than complementing his own Christian heritage by learning how the East has understood those same truths upon which Western culture is built.

The irony of this is that when a Westerner attempts to abandon his culture in a Cartesian effort to shape the world according to his partial view, he finds an Asiatic culture that places far more emphasis on tradition, wisdom of the ancestors and renunciation of novelty.  The blogger suspects however that this attraction to belief systems that some Westerners engage in is an individualistic fascination with the novel.  It all goes back to Descartes’ great attempt to believe only what he himself could justify.  From that step so much of what is wrong with Western culture followed.

Western culture has always been more individualistic than the East, but that individualism can only function in the context of tradition and a reference to the accumulated ways of doing things, based on valid lessons long since forgotten.  The error of the Westerner who thinks that he can pick and choose his culture is that he can never really escape the traditions and cultural values that have shaped him.  Thus a Western convert to Buddhism or Taoism can never be completely that, he will always be a Christian Buddhist or Taoist, just as an atheist in the West still acts in accordance with the values shaped by a Christian post-Roman culture.

And yet if Western culture is individualist, perhaps we are especially free to pick and choose who we are, like existentialists who think we can define our own meaning?  Well actually the West does have a tradition and when that tradition is strong then we are far more fulfilled and free.  Edmund Burke, a defender of the liberties of the Glorious Revolution recognised this.  As much as he believed in the freedoms won for us by Parliament, he understood that we are shaped by our traditions and history.  We hand on those rights, liberties and traditions passed on to us by our ancestors.  Our social contract is not some individualistic arrangement between us and the State, but a contract between us, previous generations and generations to come.  It is a contract based on trust; we hold what our ancestors have left for us on trust for our children.  Thus Church, Monarchy, nation and tradition should be sustained (including necessary reforms for their survival in a changing world) so that they can be passed on to the next generation.

Burke emphasised the wisdom of the ancestors, the importance of prejudice and, in his aesthetic philosophy, the importance of the Sublime.  With reference to this, I now want to return to the East.  Burke was often accused of a Catholic sympathy and yet was he not pointing out those aspects of a culture necessary for its survival that are often neglected in the West?
In the Catholic and Protestant Churches there is a strong emphasis on the individual being saved by Christ taking our punishment.  When Christianity was accepted in the West it moulded a pre-existing individualist and humanist culture.  These Indo-European races with their human-like gods and god-like heroes and their democratic ideals, placed a strong emphasis on the individual human and the personality.  True to the spirit of the Incarnation the Church met people where they were.  Yet can we not learn something from the East?  And I mean here where the East is relevant to us.  Surely the Orthodox Church has far more to say to us than Buddha, Confucius or the Dalai Lama?

The Orthodox Church places a greater emphasis on the teachings of the Church Fathers than Roman Catholics or Protestants and is this not in some way similar to Burke’s emphasis on the wisdom of the ancestors?  Its emphasis on obedience and authority (as opposed to the more subjective notion of individual interpretation of Scripture in Western Protestant Churches) is similar to the Burkean critique of Descartes.

The importance of the Patristics in Orthodox theology is something the West could perhaps learn from.  You only value learning from the Patristics if you recognise your faith is handed down to you by others who have learnt much on the way.  It is surely a recognition that the Cartesian outlook is by definition severely limited.  From the Orthodox outlook we can learn to value our own fathers’ teachings and our own traditions.

For those who look to the East, Orthodoxy provides a greater emphasis on tradition and on a meditative state through the theosis, which is difficult to achieve in the materialist West, shaped by Calvinist ideas that worldly success is evidence of election.  And most importantly of all the Orthodox Church is an expression of the universal values that the West is also in touch with – the truth of Christianity.

We will always be Western, but we can learn from Eastern Christianity, because we are starting from common ground.  From the East we can learn that Western individualism and liberty can reach their fullest potential with due recognition and reverence of tradition and the wisdom of the ancestors.

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