Changing Orthodoxy

Q: How many Orthodox does it take to change a light bulb?


C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, makes a distinction between "change from within" and "change from without." The difference, in his choice of illustration is the difference between saying, "You like your vegetables moderately fresh; why not grow your own and have them perfectly fresh?" and "Throw away that loaf and try eating bricks and centipedes instead." Lewis compares it additionally to someone who regards his language as having no authority over him, and a poet who loves his language from within, for whom "The same language that suffers the changes is the language that inspired those changes." That is a difference "as different as the works of Shakespeare are from Basic English."

He goes on to say "Those who understand the spirit of the Tao [basic moral principles known across many cultures] and who have been led by it in directions which that spirit itself demands.... From within the Tao itself comes the only authority to modify the Tao." Those who change the Tao from within may attempt changes as drastic as those who change it from without, but there is a world of difference between the two.

One of the conservatives included in my undergraduate political science class—I do not know whether a religious conservative or some other stripe of conservative—said, "To conserve is to change." Or as an Athonite elder said when I was on pilgrimage, “You don’t receive what the last generation passed on unchanged and pass it on to the next generation unchanged. You take what the previous generation worked on, work on it, and pass it on for the next generation to work on. Perhaps in something of the same vein stands the famous saying, "Being Orthodox has never been a matter of mindless parrot-like repetition of the past, but always a matter of creative fidelity," a statement that worries me for how many identical parrot-like repetitions I have heard of it and no development from it.

But I would like to suggest that, of my own work, some of my work is not intended to change. Doxology contains nothing new so far as I know. Anything of merit in it has probably been advanced further by some canonized saint, and further its demerits likely contain nothing new. The justification for reading it is not "publish or perish;" the justification for reading it is an articulation of timeless truths for today. However, a major streak of some other of my works is precisely to change Orthodoxy.

The majority of books on my bookshelf are intended to address how we might best use, moderate, or abstain from the use of technologies not available for 99% of human history and 99.9999% of human pre-history. I do not revise what the Three Heirarchs of St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, and St. Gregory the Theologian have to say about moderating our use of smartphones for the simple reason that phones were not available for them to offer direct guidance. Indirect guidance exists aplenty. The situation, in C.S. Lewis's terms, is one of modifying the Tao to successfully (or perhaps unsuccessfully) apply its spirit in further extension. I claim precursors, both in theology such as Tito Colliander's The Way of the Ascetics, and secular precursors treating dysfunctional technology use such as Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. To some extent I attempt to answer the question of, "What would figures like St. John Chrysostom have to say if people were getting sucked into cellphones in his day?" His remarks about a theatre that insults the shared nature of women obviously translate to internet porn, but beyond that a technology that naturally lends itself to checking a cellphone a hundred times a day might be reined in or prohibited. In one sense it is a questionable enterprise to ask what a particular person would have said to a question or a concept that was simply not available in his world, but in the broader sense, however silly it might be to try to demarcate the differences the Three Heirarchs would have if phones were around in their day, it is not silly to try to change the faith's capital to express its spirit in relation to a situation not directly at the points that capital's authors shone the brightest.

The changes I suggest may be ultimately as far-reaching as those sought in woke culture; but the difference is the difference between suggesting growing your own vegetables to have them perfectly fresh, and suggesting eating bricks and centipedes. Again to refer to Lewis, there is arguable debate from within the Tao whether the advance of moving from the Silver Rule of Confucius, "Do not treat others in a way that you would not like them to treat you," to the Golden Rule of Christ, "Treat others the way you'd like them to treat you." There may be room within the Tao to discuss whether this advance is truly helpful or whether the extension is superflous. Even then, though, the two sides of this hypothetical advice both recognize the Golden Rule as further application of the spirit of the Silver Rule. People who treat gold as a more valuable precious metal than silver can only meaningfully do so on the assumptions that at least some metals are precious metals and that silver is one such precious metal.

Why should I be listened to? Ideally because of continuity with traditional Orthodoxy, and faithfulness even in seeking change. When I searched Amazon in a literature search some years ago, I tried several queries and got unrelated results until I search for "Orthodox technology" and found myself and no one else on the whole of Amazon. Ancient Faith has, as I understand, accepted my request to share my "Social Antibodies" Needed: A Request of Orthodox Clergy, not directly for publication, but as a question that might be posed to its authors. I haven't heard back, though. The manager at my monastery's bookstore seemed to think that Jean-Claude Larchet (author of what I consider a top-notch The New Media Epidemic: The Undermining of Society, Family, and Our Own Soul) and I represent the only serious Orthodox presence for this question. I believe I could be a pioneer, and the question is less a question about whether my work is groundbreaking than if it is groundbreaking in a way that is truthful and helpful, or earns me new status as a groundbreaking arch-heretic.

(The last point is one I take very seriously; founders of heresies are usually very intelligent men who believe the authorities above them are in error. Arius arguably was attempting a change from within Tradition, and it is not clear to me that I would get the doctrine of the Trinity right working just from the Bible. I wrote Dissent: Lessons from Being an Orthodox Student at a Catholic University, and arguably went into error because I acted too much to try to avoid formal dissent when I believed my bishop had done something wrong that put people disagreeing with him on very shaky ground. I might have held to what my current bishop believes more successfully if I were less wary of dissenting from my previous bishop.)

That point aside, I wish to state that I am attempting to change Orthodoxy's day-to-day life, that I believe that to conserve is to change, and that my attempt represents an effort to change from within as Lewis used the term. I believe that success or failure will not arise so much from whether I was really trying to change Orthodoxy from within, but will be a verdict of history of whether I succeed in that the change I am trying to live was right given that it is an attempt to change from within.

I'd like to wind down with one story I heard this past Sunday, challenging an Enlightenment model that says we have to be continuously progressing. Someone mentioned an alcoholic who died as an "alcoholic who still suffers" in the language of Alcoholics Anonymous, and people were surprised when an authority said he went to Heaven. When they asked why, the answer was, "His mother was an alcoholic and there was alcohol in her milk. There was never a time when he was not an alcoholic. But he struggled for sobriety to the end of his days, and for that effort, he was saved.

Many people have heard this next story, but it bears repeating. In the deserts of Egypt, in ancient times, Abba Iscariot was asked, "What do we do?" He answered, "The half of what our fathers did." He was asked another question: "What will those after us do?" He answered, "The half of what we do." The Abba was then asked one final question: "What will people in the last times do?" He said, "They will not be able to do much of any ascetical exploit, but those that keep the faith will be honored above our fathers who raised the dead."

It is my hope that, in this world with ever more addictive technologies pushed at a younger and younger age, my work will help support people in keeping the faith until the end of their days.

Br. Christos