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Traditional Orthodoxy vs Social Conservatism

Updated: May 2, 2023

By Subdeacon Nektarios, M.A.

Originally Posted at the Orthodox Ethos

 

In today’s Orthodox Christian landscape, we often find that the majority of the converts in our parishes are fleeing from other religious organizations such as the those of Protestantism, whether Reformed or Papal [Roman Catholicism], due to the severe moral decline occurring within these heterodox organizations, such as recognizing so-called homosexual marriages, introducing females into the ranks of clergy or embracing the new heretical “woke” ideology which is spreading like cancer across the western world. These inquirers and neophytes see in the Orthodox Church a bastion of conservatism; an enclave of the traditional worldview rapidly being abandoned if not already completely discarded in their own confessions.

President Trump at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference

Many of these well-intended, conservative-minded people find themselves discovering the Orthodox Church or becoming members quickly through a too-rapid catechumenate utilized by some clergy. They search for a Church that is socially conservative, and when they find what they think they are looking for within the Orthodox Church, within months they are made catechumens and baptized or quickly and improperly received by Chrismation. Often times this occurs without the proper formation of the person and without helping these neophytes acquire an Orthodox phronema (mindset). Without this mindset they are led to believe that because they are socially or politically conservative and within the Orthodox Church, they are also now traditionally-minded Orthodox Christians. However, this is not the case.


Social-political conservativism and traditional Orthodox Christianity are in one sense similar but simultaneously diametrically opposed to one another. In the doctrine and practice of the Orthodox Church you will find that the Church is against many of the same things as those who are socially and politically conservative such as being against so-called homosexual marriage, abortion, Progressivism, transhumanism, unchecked sexual degeneracy of the modern society and so forth. However, does being against these common points make someone a traditional Orthodox Christian?


His Grace Bishop Luke of Syracuse, Abbot of Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York is quoted saying that, “many people who are satisfied with [being] conservative do not want anything to do with being traditional, because it’s too foreign to them, but you cannot have Orthodoxy without traditionalism.” [1] That brings us to the question: what is the difference between a social or political conservative in the Orthodox Church versus an Orthodox Christian who has a traditional Orthodox phronema? The answer does not come down to what they have in common or not in the realm of ideas but how they live out their lives within Holy Orthodoxy. Almost invariably the social conservative and the traditional Orthodox Christian will believe the same thing about the various illnesses and delusions in general but they will live a life that is entirely different from each other.

His Grace + Bishop Luke of Syracuse

The social conservatives we are referring to here quite often will never break out of their old habits from their prior confessions and will not immerse themselves in the life of the Orthodox Church or, more importantly, in the mind of the Saints and Church Fathers. They may come to Church just on Sundays, since that is what all the conservatives do elsewhere; they will frequently ignore the traditions of the Church such as aspects of fasting, frequent confession and communion, modesty in dress (i.e. wearing mini-skirts, shorts, or going bare foot), including women wearing head coverings in Church; they will frequently disregard the contemporary elders of the Church and contemporary saints and will never visit monasteries to go deeper into the spiritual life. There is a sort of moralistic frame of mind that being on the same conservative page socially and politically and coming to Church once a week is what it means to be an Orthodox Christian.


Often there is a political obsession where they can tell you about all the current events of the latest political developments or who said what on Fox News or CNN but cannot tell you the saints of the day, or even much about saints at all, even contemporary saints. Blessed Metropolitan Philaret of New York says to “ask them […] the main dogmas of the Christian faith, or to name the twelve Apostles of Christ (people who did immeasurably more for mankind than any tsar or writer) and in the nine of ten cases, the result will be lamentable. Even worse is the fact that no one considers this ignorance to be a disgrace and people even admit it light-heartedly.” [2]


This brings us to try to understand what a traditional Orthodox Christian is and who is living with a true Orthodox worldview. However, “before proceeding any further, it must be clearly established in our minds that the Fathers of the Church, those wise and holy teachers of the Orthodox faith, are not the product of some by-gone age; they are not a thing of the past.” [3] This is where we have to begin in order to acquire the true Orthodox mindset which comes from living according to the Holy Tradition, the very life of the Holy Spirit in the Church. We have to look to the Fathers of the Church but not only the Fathers of the first millennium or certain groups of Church Fathers. Rather, first of all we look to the Saints and Holy Fathers who are living or have lived within our contemporary time and dealt with our contemporary issues, themselves following the Holy Fathers before them.


Saint Gregory Palamas on this very subject says:


If from one burning lamp someone lights another, then another from that one, and so on in succession, he has the light continuously. In the same way, through the Apostles ordaining their successors, and these successors ordaining others, and so on, the grace of the Holy Spirit is handed down through all generations and enlightens all who obey their shepherds and teachers.


The traditional Orthodox Christian is not simply one who lives morally and holds to the right positions on contemporary moral and political issues. Rather he is one who immerses himself in the life of the Church, in the writings of the Church Fathers and the lives of the Saints, and seeks always to go deeper in the spiritual life, ever-repenting, always desiring greater self-knowledge, always entreating God to enlighten his darkness. Even while seeking or even speaking "the prophetic word" of truth to his generation he never ceases to stand “eschatologically," that is, with his mind before the end of all things, at the right hand of God, where Christ his Lord is clothed in his human nature, awaiting the consummation of all things -- the fulfilment of the Divine Economy, the Resurrection and Judgement of all, the new heaven and earth.


Blessed Philaret of New York in his homily “The Christian Obligation to Know God" states, “If our first and basic obligation to God is to love Him, then it follows naturally that we must know Him. Man will not and cannot love one whom he does not know. We must observe that the necessity to know God is one of the least fulfilled of our obligations. How different it was in former times when interest in theological matters and religious knowledge was deeply felt by Orthodox souls.” [4] Hence, although one can be socially and politically conservative and neither know or love God, one cannot be an Orthodox Christian. And, if to know God is to love Him, for He is Love, the absence among us of a cross-bearing, ascetic Way and Ethos may be a testimony to our supposing that a politically and morally correct worldview is synonymous with the Orthodox worldview and way of life.

"Are you Orthodox in all things?" - St Philaret of New York

Traditional Orthodox Christians try to live in the same manner as the saints, they strive to read the writings and lives of the Holy Fathers, to immerse themselves in the theology of the Church, to adhere to the holy canons, to make frequent visits to the Holy Monasteries in order to be inspired and guided by the monastics who are "lights unto the laity." Traditional-minded Orthodox Christians seek out discerning spiritual fathers to guide them in the way, and they have a prayer rule from their spiritual father, often including prostrations, and most importantly they immerse themselves in the divine services as much as possible, knowing that Church on Sunday alone is not sufficient to make spiritual progress in the Orthodox Christian life. Living thus, they know deeply that adhering to social conservatism is not the same as being a traditional Orthodox Christian.


Metropolitan Philaret of New York asks, “Are you Orthodox in all things? If you call yourself Orthodox and are convinced that you are Orthodox, then the triumph of Orthodoxy is your triumph. You must still strive, however, so that the name Orthodox which has been applied to you corresponds to reality,” that you acquire the Orthodox phronema and live in and according to the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church. [5]

 

References


[1]. Bishop Luke of Syracuse, “The Ethos of the Russian Monastics of Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY.” Orthodox Ethos, November 13, 2022, https://www.orthodoxethos.com/oe-video-library


[2]. Metropolitan Philaret of New York, Living According to God’s Will (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2021), 124.


[3]. Protopresbyter Theodoros Zisis, Following the Holy Fathers: Timeless Guides of Authentic Christianity (Columbia: Newrome Press, 2017), 1.


[4]. Metropolitan Philaret of New York, Living According to God’s Will (Jordanville: Holy Trinity Monastery, 2021), 123.


[5]. Metropolitan Philaret of New York, “Triumph of Orthodoxy,” in Metropolitan Philaret of New York: Zealous Confessor of the Faith, ed. Subdeacon Nektarios Harrison (Florence: Uncut Mountain Press, 2022), 143.

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