Tradition as Hermeneutic and Mission

Fr Deacon Steven Hayes raises some interesting points in response to my earlier re-posting on the notion of “mission Dei.” In response to my observation that Holy Tradition is (or should be) a hermeneutic by which we come to understand ourselves and the world of persons, events and things, Father writes: “That’s what I understand by “Orthodox worldview” or Orthodox “fronima” — trying to understand the world and other people and things around us in the light of the Orthodox Christian faith.” I certainly agree with on this. In fact part of why I became Orthodox was because I became convinced that, as embodied creatures, human beings only know anything in light of a shared narrative, a tradition. This being the case, which narrative I followed, which tradition in which I stood, became very important for me.

Looking around I found that the Tradition of the Orthodox Church helped me make the best sense of myself and my own experiences. But this wasn’t all. In addition to it subjective value (i.e., the value of Holy Tradition “for me”) I also saw the objective value of the Tradition of the Church. Holy Tradition is a rich source of insight to help me understand the world of persons, events and things in which I found myself.

But Fr Steven also helped put into words my own discomfort with “missio Dei” as it has come to be articulated in the Emergent Church movement. Specifically and again returning to the words of the good deacon, “The problem I have with ‘missio Dei’ is that I can’t see what else it could be. The proponents of ‘missio Dei’ seem to think it is a new thing, something no one has ever thought of before. But it seems to me that it is something that underlies all Orthodox assumptions about mission – ‘as the Father sent me, so I am sending you’. It seems axiomatic.” He then I think puts his finger right on the matter when he says perhaps the problem he (and I) have with “mission Dei” is that “Protestant ecclesiology is different.”

Let me offer some random and somewhat unstructured thoughts on the theme Deacon Steven raises.

Maybe it’s an American thing, but here in the States one often see Holy Tradition approached as an objective standard to be fulfilled rather than a hermeneutic. While these are not necessarily in opposition (and in my experience they are not only not opposed, they converge), it is not uncommon to see people here approach the Tradition in a neurotic fashion—as an abstract, rarified image to which people must conform—rather than a light that illumines human life and shows the traces of grace in the life of the person or community.

As a pastoral matter, this results in the life of the parish being constructed according to a personal ideology. By this I mean that when we fail to see the hermeneutical character, we build our lives around an idea that we have abstracted from the Tradition. As a consequence, we end up valuing some elements of Holy Tradition and our lives over others. In a word, our life often internally coherent, is not catholic (kata, +holos), or whole.

Typically this lack of wholeness takes one of three forms:

  1. A tacit, and sometimes explicit, assumption that the parish is for “our” people. “Our” people might be either a members of a particular traditional ethnic community (Greeks, Russians, Arabs, etc.)
  2. A group that prides itself on being “not-ethnic.” This is often, though by no means exclusively, a community composed of converts. Interestingly, in the OCA (and I assume this is so inn other jurisdictions) one finds cradle Orthodox for whom anything of their own ethnic tradition is consistently minimized or rejected
  3. Among some communities there is a frank imitation of monastic life. In these communities, the life of the community does not so much center around liturgy as much as it is reduced to liturgy. I should point out that, as with the other two examples, the attachment to monasticism is ideological. Monastic life is a great blessing for the Church. Those communities that purport to adopt a monastic model

In all three of these deformative approaches to Tradition and the life and mission of the Church, our vision becomes increasingly narrow and sectarian, our style of relating to one and other becomes increasingly chaotic and authoritarian (the first symptom of this is the administrative life of the community decays).

As always, your comments, questions, and criticisms are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory


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