“Kirkean, Burkean conservatism finds its paradise in Orthodoxy,” says a professor who teaches at a Southern college. “It is non-ideological and traditionalist to its bones. It collects and preserves and quietly presents the organically grown wisdom of the past in a way that’s compelling and, literally, beautiful.”
I was interested to read the comments from the people Rod interviewed for the article. There were some things familiar from my own experience as an Orthodox convert, but what occurred to me as I read the article was how different my introduction to Orthodoxy was. First of all, as longtime readers know, I grew up without much in the way of religious education of any kind, I attended secular private schools, and my parents were not regular church-goers. The Orthodox Church has been the first and only real experience of Christianity I have had in my life. I have attended other kinds of Christian services, and I am familiar with the teachings of other confessions, but there is no other confession to which I have belonged as a member. As a convert, I became Orthodox when I might have become something else, but it honestly never occurred to me that I would belong to any other church once I came to accept the truth of Christianity. Unlike the people Rod mentions in the article, I have not gone through the experience of being part of one confession and then changing to another, which I think gives me a somewhat different perspective on Orthodoxy in America and on being an Orthodox Christian who happens to be politically conservative.
Almost all of the converts whom I have known over the last ten years have come to Orthodoxy as converts from another church, and that is certainly the normal experience for American converts. By contrast, my own introduction to Orthodoxy initially came mostly through study and what was at first an overly intellectualized engagement with the teachings of the Church. Long before I began moving towards Orthodoxy, I was being introduced to an Orthodox view of the world through Dostoevsky and through my eclectic religious reading, which included the translation of The Philokalia, which I only barely comprehended when I first encountered it. It wasn’t until that I started grounding my understanding of the faith in its historical context when I was in college that I began to appreciate what I was discovering. That was what started me on the path to studying Byzantine history at the same time. It also deepened my interest in the history of the Orthodox Church and the Church’s teachings, which eventually led to my baptism in 2003. In fact, it was originally a very academic inquiry into the history of the 14th-century Hesychastic controversy in Byzantium that started me on my academic interest in both Byzantine theology and history, which would only later lead me to understand how insufficient an academic and intellectual approach to Orthodoxy was.
There are certainly points of agreement between traditional conservatism of a Burkean sort and the Orthodox understanding of Church Tradition. The most obvious is Orthodoxy’s respect for the importance of inherited teachings and wisdom. This isn’t entirely unique to the Orthodox Church, but I also think it is also fair to say that the Orthodox Church venerates Church Tradition as much as or more than any other. One of the things that I have never found very persuasive is the well-intended modern Orthodox attempt to defend Tradition while dismissing “traditions” as conventions or cultural baggage, because I assume that these traditions serve valuable functions for the religious communities that reproduce them. These “merely” cultural traditions are sometimes not part of the unwritten Tradition of the Church, but that doesn’t mean that something important wouldn’t be lost if they were set aside. Respect for antiquity is something else that I instinctively like about Orthodoxy, but because of Orthodoxy’s equally important emphasis on living tradition this is not the same as antiquarianism or romanticism about the past.
Orthodox writers often like to refer to the Church’s doctrine of theosis or deification. That is appropriate because of the great importance of this teaching and its centrality to what the Church teaches about the relationship between God and man. However, it is also essential to stress the Lord’s kenosis in His Incarnation, which is the self-emptying act of sacrifice and love that He has done for us, and it presents us with the example that we are called to follow. Theosis would not be possible but for that kenosis. Christ’s self-emptying teaches us the radical humility of God in Whose image and likeness we are made and in Whose Life we are allowed to participate. This is the humility that Orthodox Christians are called to imitate, and it opposes all forms of hubris.