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Saturday, 30 January 2016

Fundamentalist, Conservative or Traditionalist?


Fundamentalist, Conservative or
Traditionalist?

The words ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘conservative’ are often used as an insult by religious or political liberals, but Orthodox traditionalism has nothing in common with right-of-centre politics, fundamentalism or conservatism. The Oxford English Dictionary defines conservatism as ‘the tendency to resist great or sudden change; adherence to traditional values and ideas.’ It defines fundamentalism as a ‘strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrines, with no concessions to modern developments in thought or customs.’ Both these definitions are accurate in that they portray people’s perception of conservatism and fundamentalism, but there is much more to both than simply a refusal to move with the times.

Today, religious fundamentalism is normally associated with Protestants and Muslims, but there are also Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalists. In the USSR, the persecution of Christians was justified by a form of atheistic fundamentalism. The word ‘fundamentalism’ derives from a collection of essays called ‘The Fundamentals’ published between 1910 and 1915 by American Protestants opposed to liberal theology.

Although fundamentalism is often associated with bigotry and intolerance, these are merely side-effects of the literalism and inflexibility that is associated with it. Another characteristic of fundamentalism is a shallowness of thought in which everything, and everyone, can be divided into good and bad, right or wrong. For example, an Orthodox ‘fundamentalist’ would insist long hair and beards indicate ‘good’ Orthodox priests, but that short hair and goatees indicate ‘bad’ priests. Although Orthodox clergy should have long hair and beards, this by itself does not indicate traditional Orthodoxy: Patriarch Athenagoras, for example, had a long, untrimmed beard. On the other hand, some Orthodox clergy dress in a nontraditional manner, but are supporters of traditional Orthodoxy in their hearts who, for various reasons, are unable to make a more public commitment to it.

Orthodoxy and fundamentalism


It is impossible to strip the Mysteries of the Church back to some man-made fundamentals that must be conformed to. An Orthodox belief in Scripture and Tradition is essential to right faith, but it is not right faith. A simple mental acceptance of these dogmas is not enough; we must live in the dogmas, not simply recognize them to be correct.
Although we have discussed the exclusiveness of the Orthodox Church and its perfect exposition of the Christian Faith, this perfection is not the dogmas of the Church. It is because the Church is the Body of Christ, that these dogmas are perfect and must be believed. Believing correctly in Orthodox dogma is essential for salvation, but it is not how right we believe the Orthodox Church to be that saves, but how much we put these beliefs into practice.
In other words, the key difference between Orthodoxy and fundamentalism is that the latter is theoretical, but the former is practical. In addition, fundamentalism is characterized by pride and bigotry, but true Orthodox Christianity (and therefore Orthodox traditionalism) by humility and tolerance. Fundamentalism is incompatible with the Orthodox ethos of love, compassion, and forgiveness.
The path of Orthodox Traditionalism is the Royal Path between fundamentalism on the right and syncretism on the left. In the words of the Patriarch of Constantinople’s 1902 encyclical:
We must guard in its integrity the divine jewel, the dogmas of the Orthodox Faith, which we have preserved intact for all the centuries past. We must preserve every liturgical custom of whatever sort which clearly symbolizes the essence of these dogmas...We must preserve entire the whole external life of Orthodoxy.
This ‘external life’ of Orthodoxy is how we put our Orthodox Faith into practice. It is by prayer, fasting, by guarding of the senses, and thoughts, and above all by humility, that we can prevent a lapse from traditionalism into fundamentalism.
The only reason that the phrase ‘Orthodox traditionalism’ exists is because Orthodox ecumenism exists. Traditionalism is faithfulness to the traditions of Orthodoxy that are being betrayed by the ecumenical movement. Traditionalism is Orthodoxy.

Conservatism or traditionalism?


Orthodox traditionalism, because it resists the breaking down of Church tradition by ecumenism is viewed by many as a form of conservatism. The view that the Orthodox Church is outdated and crippled by conservatism is held by many ecumenists:
Much of the anxiety Orthodox feel – the fear that they may be “trapped” in an unacceptable prayer – is triggered by the fact that the ecumenical worship does not use predicable and centuries-old prayers…This causes Orthodox worshippers to feel uneasy and uncomfortable. They do not trust new prayers. But is this distrust consistent with Orthodox tradition? Isn’t it the case that, at some point, all Christian prayers were new? The Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom was once prayed for the first time, by a community which had never heard it before. Why, then, is there an Orthodox distrust of the “new” today? Has the Holy Spirit abandoned the church and withdrawn inspiration? [1]
However, traditionalism is not just about rejecting change. The ecumenist quoted above completely misses the point that the prayers of the Orthodox Church are always new because the Church is constantly being renewed by the Holy Spirit. The Church is a living theanthropic organism. Even on a practical level, new hymns are being composed every day to the many Saints who do not have a service written for them. These hymns are new, but the Orthodox Church embraces them because they are composed from within the Orthodox Tradition.

The key difference between Orthodox traditionalism and conservatism is that the latter seeks to conserve some outward traditions, but real traditionalism preserves, not only the outward traditions, but also the dogmas of the Church, not simply to be conservative, but because they are saving and because the Church is a place to heal our souls from their spiritual sickness.

Unfortunately, many Orthodox Christians believe in conservatism rather than traditionalism. Some modernist Orthodox churches are adorned with ‘correct’ Byzantine iconography and use Byzantine chant, but have little commitment to the traditional Orthodox Faith. For example, one New Calendar diocese in the late 90s banned raffles and bingo on church premises, but at the same time issued the following encyclical:
Converts to our faith, coming to us from the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant churches that baptize with a Trinitarian formula, are received into our Church through the Sacrament of Chrismation. They are not received through the Sacrament of Baptism. Any one that receives such a convert through Baptism and not Chrismation will be immediately suspended and brought to a Spiritual Court hearing. This is not a new policy or directive. No one has the authority or right to arbitrarily change this practice of our Church. [2]
As we have discussed, ‘the practice of our Church’ (Constantinople) that the bishop refers to above, was different in previous years before the heresy of ecumenism reduced Her ability to stand up for the dogmas of Orthodoxy. The issue of conservatism is not black and white. The noted ecumenist Fr. Alexander Schmemann, for example, took exception to the practice of private baptisms held in people’s homes and to other changes to the baptismal service introduced by liturgical modernists:
It is indeed quite typical of our present situation that while all efforts toward a more liturgical celebration of Baptism are met with suspicion if not outright opposition (they scandalize the faithful!), the non-compliance with even the most explicit rubrics concerning Baptism is accepted as perfectly normal. [3]
Orthodox conservatism, in that it keeps some traditions and rejects others, is similar in many ways to fundamentalism. Traditionalists, on the other hand, do not reject any traditions of the Orthodox Church as unnecessary or outdated. Trying to keep these traditions is part of the Orthodox spiritual life in which we struggle in obedience to the Church.

The importance of the Orthodox spiritual life in avoiding Fundamentalism


Traditionalism can turn into fundamentalism if, through laziness and pride, we neglect our own spiritual lives and focus on the failings of others; when we measure our Orthodoxy by how strict we are in keeping the rules of the church compared to others, rather than by how strict we are in fighting the passions. We will then, in the words of Saint Maximos the Confessor, be pursuing a form of ‘theoretical morality’.
We must follow the Royal Path[4] of Orthodoxy, avoiding destructive doubt and modernism on the left, and fundamentalism, coupled with pride on the right. In contrast to fundamentalism, Orthodox traditionalism seeks to keep the traditions of the Church not only because they are divinely inspired, but because the traditionalists themselves, as best they can, are struggling with humility in prayer and asceticism, to become divinely inspired themselves.

True Orthodoxy cannot be separated from personal experience. Central to this experience must be humility which prevents us from slipping from traditionalism into fundamentalism. However, in order to avoid pride and gain true humility we must guard our senses and thoughts by not interacting with the various suggestions of the demons. This is the foundation of the spiritual life as Saint Gregory Palamas teaches:
Set this guard, therefore, over your soul and body, for thereby you will readily free yourself from the passions of body and soul. Take yourself in hand then, be attentive to yourself, scrutinize yourself; or, rather, guard, watch over and test yourself, for in this manner you will subdue your rebellious unregenerate self to the Spirit and there will never again be ‘some secret iniquity in your heart’.[5]
This purifying of the nous (the eye or energy of the soul) is the goal of all Orthodox Christians. It is this life of asceticism within the Church that is fundamental to Orthodoxy, and this active struggle and warfare against the passions that distinguishes theoretical fundamentalism from active traditionalism.


[1] Ecumenical Review, Vol. 54, No. 1, (January-April 2002): pp. 3-27.

[2] The Reception of Converts into Orthodoxy (Diocese of Pittsburgh: May 19, 1997).

[3] A. Schmemann, Of Water and the Spirit (New York: SVS Press 1974) p. 164.

[4] cf. Numbers 20:17-21:22.

[5] G.E.H. Palmer, P. Sherrard & K. Ware (trans.), The Philokalia, Vol. 4 (London: Faber & Faber, 1995) p. 338.


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