A friend sent me last night this three-minute clip of Jordan Peterson stating his opinion of Orthodox Christianity. Warning: there’s one profanity in it, so don’t watch it at work:
Peterson is not a Christian of any sort, in case you don’t know. What struck me about his characterization of Orthodoxy is the contrast he drew between it and Western Christianity. He characterized Western Christianity, in both its Catholic and Protestant versions, as being more cerebral, and built around assent to propositions. Orthodoxy, by contrast — again, this is Peterson’s telling — is more characterized by living closely by the Gospel narrative. He says that in Orthodoxy, the unquestioned assumption is that life is hard, and will involve suffering, but we have no choice except to take up our cross and stagger onward rejoicing. In Peterson’s view — and I wish he had expanded on this — Orthodox Christianity captures something true about the nature of religion that has been downplayed by the West.
I’m not theologically sophisticated enough to assent to or dissent from this in any depth, but I found myself listening to it and thinking that he’s onto something. When I became Orthodox in 2006, I made a conscious decision not to go deep into Orthodox theology and doctrine in my own life — not because there is anything wrong with it, but because I knew that in my case, I had left myself in an extremely vulnerable position as a Catholic by overintellectualizing my faith. I had thought that having the arguments and the doctrines clear in my mind was sufficient. I was wrong, and my Catholicism did not withstand a terrible test. I could not allow myself to be that kind of Orthodox Christian. Instead, I focused on living the ordinary spiritual life of an Orthodox Christian.
This can be deceptive in its simplicity, in the sense that its simplicity can make it seem shallow, at least at first. Most assuredly it is not. It’s just that Orthodoxy is a significantly different mode of being a Christian than what we in the West are accustomed to. Take fasting, for example. The standard Orthodox practice is to avoid meat and dairy on Wednesdays and Fridays, and during prescribed fasting periods. If you ask your priest why we do this, he can give you theological reasons, but the main reason is “because this is what was handed down to us. This is our tradition.” Westerners typically come to Orthodoxy prepared to interrogate the Tradition. You won’t get far with that. The disposition within Orthodoxy is to accept the Tradition, and to do your best to live by it.
Interrogating the tradition is usually carried out within a general sense of acceptance, of receptivity. It’s not like, “Let’s inquire about this particular tradition so we can decide if it makes sense to us today to follow it.” It’s rather, “Let’s inquire about this particular tradition so we can better understand why the Fathers tell us to observe it.”
Not every Orthodox Christian thinks and feels this way, and certainly not every Orthodox Christian perfectly receives and lives by the Tradition. But the Tradition is there, and it is largely unquestioned. This is a very good thing.
I tell you all this as a preface to John Shelton’s snappy Mere Orthodoxy essay about the Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas. There’s something deeply un-American, but deeply Orthodox, in the way Hauerwas thinks as a Christian. For example:
“Inherent to liberalism is the attempt to create societies and people without memory.” [says Hauerwas]
In one of his better known essays, Hauerwas shows how a book ostensibly about rabbits, Richard Adams’ Watership Down, is also an insightful work of political theory. The children’s fantasy novel centers on several rabbit warrens, including Cowslip’s warren and the titular Watership Down. Adams’ rabbits live and thrive through the telling of stories, especially about the creation of the rabbits, their enemies, and the rabbit hero, El-ahrairah. El-ahraiah is the manifestation of everything that rabbits must become—cunning, but also collaborative and hospitable—in order to survive their faster, stronger, deadlier predators.
However, in Cowslip’s warren, the rabbits have stopped telling each other stories. Without the tales of rabbit wile and banding together against their predators, each rabbit cares only for his own self-interest, and that half-heartedly. These rabbits found that, by ignoring the stories of El-ahrairah, death could become a tolerable inevitability. They could grow fat and live comfortable lives by becoming sedentary, sustained by the spectrous figure of a farmer. Never mind the rabbits who disappeared; never mind that a life of ease and comfort was unnatural and unheard of in the tales of El-ahrairah. Without stories, the rabbits of this warren become capable of indifference. Shorn of story-enshrined memory, the rabbits resign themselves to death, either accepting or ignoring the snares that imperiled their neighbors in the warren. So it goes.
This is the world under the spell of liberalism. Human communities, much like rabbit warrens, are constituted by the stories they tell about themselves. When communities are shorn of story, it leaves them morally neutered, despondent, and unable to deal with life’s contingencies. While political theorists like John Rawls would say that non-sectarian, universally-agreeable “public reason” is necessary for a just politics, Hauerwas insists that it is a shared story about the way things are that makes politics possible. A story-less society cannot justify anything more than pale individualism and contractualism: e.g., “it is my body and I can do whatever I want with it” or “consent, and nothing else, is what makes sex good.”
Liberalism is a philosophy which fractures complexly-interrelated human persons into atom-sized parts called “individuals.” If you want to know why an unrelenting individualism grips the American psyche, you need look no farther than the abiding influence of liberalism in the country, ensconced deeply in our DNA at the founding.
Every time someone reads this passage, Patrick Deneen’s ears grow a little more lapine.
You may not know this, but Hauerwas is not a conservative. He is generally taken to be a man of the Left, but it’s misleading to put him into political boxes. His dunning of “liberalism” here is not meant strictly as a criticism of the politics of the democratic party, but in the broader sense of modern life in the West.
What does this have to do with Orthodoxy? Check out this next passage from Shelton’s essay:
“No task is more important than for the Church to take the Bible out of the hands of individual Christians in North America.” [says Hauerwas]
Perhaps the only surer way to enrage an American Christian than threatening to take the Bible out of his hands is threatening to take away his gun (no doubt, Hauerwas would bid both farewell gladly). Hauerwas wants to remove bibles from the pews because he is worried that individualism—the conceit of self-sufficiency—has thoroughly corrupted American Christians’ ability to interpret Scripture.
Lost in the smoke, American Christians “feel no need to stand under the authority of a truthful community to be told how to read.”4 This despite centuries, if not millennia, of church teaching that a rule of faith is necessary to preserve orthodox theology. In the end, it was not so much a commitment to Scripture that separated out the world-hating gnostics from those who worshipped God enfleshed, nor raw assent to scriptural authority that separated out the Arians from the Trinitarians. All sides used the Bible to make their arguments. In the end, it was the rule of faith, the pattern handed down across time by the apostles, that enabled Christians to interpret Scripture rightly.
By taking the Bible out of the hands of Christians, Hauerwas hopes to remind them that the Bible can only be read well when it is handed down. Interpretation, where it is faithful, always occurs within a tradition. As G. K. Chesterton would remind us, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead” (Orthodoxy). Hauerwas has no patience for individualism, for it denies the necessity of thinking with those who merely happen to be dead. But even more crucially than Chesterton’s point, individualism forgets that we are indebted to the dead, those whom the tradition gives voice, for collecting, preserving and passing the Bible, as well as its proper interpretation, along to us. We inherit a set canon from those who came before. Without the tradition, we would not have a Bible.
How it is that Hauerwas holds on to his Protestantism while holding this view is a mystery to me. But there it is. Understand that he doesn’t mean confiscating Bibles here, but rather that individual Christians should submit to the interpretive authority of a community formed by and loyal to Tradition.
What to do? More Shelton:
“The church… stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.” [says Hauerwas]
The church of Jesus Christ is the antidote to liberalism, individualism, and nationalism. It is the community in which we learn that we have a story, that we are not alone, and that we are a part of a kingdom that is not of this world. The church does not have an antidote—it is the antidote. That is, the cure for these three –isms is not to be found in three countervailing –isms. The cure is found in the very DNA of the church.
The church is antidote to liberalism because it is made up of “those that have been formed by the story of Christ.” It is antidote to individualism because it witnesses to the possibility of a different “kind of social life.” And lastly, the church is antidote to nationalism because it “stands as a political alternative to every nation.”
Shelton explains what Hauerwas means by this, but you need to read the whole thing. I hope you will — it’s good, especially the part where he talks about why Story is so central to Hauerwas’s thought.
I think Hauerwas is right. Maybe you do too. But when he talks about the church being the antidote, you have to ask: which church? Which tradition? Hauerwas was raised Methodist, but today attends an Episcopal church. In neither church today is there much binding Tradition. (I say that not as a criticism, but as an observation.) Catholicism has within it a great deal of latent tradition, but aside from some holdouts, it has been effectively neutralized by Vatican II, and therefore absorbed by liberalism. (This traditionalist Catholic blog offers a short reflection on the cultural anthropologist Mary Douglas, and her condemnation as a scientist of the English Catholic bishops’ abolition of the Friday fast.) There is a strong tradition within Catholicism that is recoverable, but it requires a lot of work, and it has to be undertaken in awareness that the tradition as tradition (from Latin traditio, handing down) was broken. Catholics seeking to recover their tradition are conscious of it as an act of recovery, and cannot be otherwise.
Then there is Orthodoxy. Its traditions have come down to the modern world intact in a way that they simply are not in Catholicism. Though Orthodoxy (at least in the West) is just beginning to confront within it forces of revisionism and modernism, the overwhelming weight of tradition, and the way the Orthodox think of tradition (or rather, don’t think, only gratefully receive), gives it ballast against the capsizing waves of liquid modernity. There are plenty of Orthodox who do not receive the tradition in their own lives, alas, but it’s hard to get far in Orthodoxy with efforts to annul or change the tradition. William Wordsworth’s poem “The Tables Turned” is a Romantic call to get out of the lab (so to speak) and back into Nature — which is to say, to turn off the analytical and cultivate the intuitive. It ends like this:
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—
We murder to dissect.
Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.
This is a pretty good approximation of a core difference between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity. The presumption is not to dissect the Tradition, but to receive it with a grateful heart, and to focus instead on how to live most fully by the Story it tells.
Of course any Western Christian who takes up Orthodoxy is doing something without precedent in his own culture’s tradition. But what else is there? Other than traditional Catholicism, I don’t know. To be sure, I know plenty of people who are better Christians than I am, and who are not Catholic trads or Orthodox. I’m not just saying that. Most of my friends are like that. In the long run, though — emphasis on “long run” — I don’t see how their form of Christianity withstands liquid modernity.
(Side note: I would except Anabaptists like the Bruderhof from that judgment, because they live in very thick community, which gives gravity to their own traditions, even though those traditions are relatively new, compared to Catholic and Orthodox traditions.)
I say that not to condemn, but to start a conversation. I believe Hauerwas is right in the passages I’ve quoted above. But that being the case, I don’t know how one lives against the dissolution without a strong Story, a Story that exercises its strong gravity over every aspect of one’s life. That’s how believing Orthodox Christians live. All Christians have the basic Story, but Orthodoxy, and those formed by it, absorb the Story and narrate their own lives by it in ways that I have never before seen. Jordan Peterson is onto something.