Tradition and the Passions

In an earlier post, I argued that a tradition exists, enhypostatically, that is only by way of the person. What might this mean for East/West conversations?

Let me suggest that if the tradition only exists by way of the person, then tradition is not simply, or even primarily, an objective content. Rather tradition is a virtue and virtues wax and wane. In other words, a tradition is only more or less revealed by how I live my life. Complicating this further, is that I do not live or embody only one tradition. Rather each human life is lived as the intersection of multiple traditions.

So yes, I am an Orthodox Christian, but my experience of that tradition has been co-formed (as van Kaam would argue) by the variety of other traditions in which I live. For example, I am an Orthodox Christian, but I am also an American. Currently my wife and I live in Ohio (yet another tradition), though we have lived in Pennsylvania, California and Texas. My wife grew up in Oregon, I grew up in Connecticut—so there are two more traditions that form our lives.

Complicating this further, my understanding of what it means to be an Orthodox Christian is strongly influenced by my becoming Orthodox as an adult, by being a psychologist, my service as a mission priest and a college chaplain. All of these are central to me and so to how I come to embody the Tradition of the Orthodox Church. And this is all before we look at my own unique genetic and psychological characteristics.

And if this is true for me, it is also true for my Catholic partner in a theological conversation.

Add to this outside observers, each of whom live at the confluence of multiple traditions and with their own unique backgrounds, who may “eavesdrop” on our conversation and how complex the conversation between us becomes!

Does this mean that we should not engage in theological conversations across traditions? No. It does mean however that we need to attentive to how these other traditions influence us personally, our perception of both our own theological tradition and that our partner in conversation, and really the whole of our encounter with each other.

Given the complexity of the situation it might at first seem that a theological conversation is pointless. It isn’t. BUT, and this is an important point, each of these traditions carries with it what van Kaam called life directives or “oughts.” We may agree or disagree with these directives, but they influence us in either case. To the degree that we are unaware of these directives they rob us of our freedom to respond in charity.

All of this is to say that even if the content of our conversation with each other is lofty, we are still under the sway of the passions. We are motivated by a desire for pleasure and the avoidance of pain—and unless we are well formed in the spiritual life, and psychologically sound, what we are mostly likely to give voice to is not the tradition of the Orthodox Church or the tradition of the Catholic Church, but our own passions. And this, I would suggest, is true regardless of the objective validity of any given statement that we might make.

The example I use with my own spiritual children is this, it may in fact be objectively the case that I am stupid and my mother dresses me funny, but it is unlikely that telling me this truth is sufficient to change my life. Still less is telling me this likely to encourage me to trust you and give you a place of authority in my life. And let us make no mistake here, in any conversation I have, I only listen to the views of those who I see as authoritative—I might or might not trust they authority, but I still must see them as an authority for me.

As I said earlier, far too often and for too many of us, our attachment to our religious tradition is an escape, a refusal, of the dynamic and gratuitous quality of our own lives that van Kaam does such a effective job of delineating for us. Often we embody this refusal in our polemic attitude and conversation with others.

Whatever the reason, sharp disagreements are inevitable when we are looking together at what divides us. Polemics, however, seem to me to begin with that sharp disagreement. In so doing, they are intellectually unchaste embodying as they do an underlying lack of respect for the limitations of both self and others. In our polemical attitude we are freed from any consideration of our own passions in the pursuit of the Truth. The fact that we often say things which are true does not remove from us the burden of intellectual dishonesty.

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