Being Formed in the Tradition


I watched a group of linguistic-psychologists (of varying sorts) in a panel discussion the other night (CSPAN). All of them are involved in advising political campaigns. What they know about the science of language and how people actually make decisions versus how we would like to think we make decisions was staggering. Among the most staggering of agreed pieces of data was that 98% of the process of so-called rational decisions are actually unconscious. That is to say, that most of what goes into a rational decision is something that is far deeper than rationality (rationality turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg and not a very big tip at that.)

Thus, it would seem when it comes to reading Scripture, it is likely the case that most of what we think of as “interpretation” is also beneath the surface of rationality (and thus beneath the surface of “literalism” or the “plain sense”). All of this knowledge has a frightening aspect when considering politics – but a confirming aspect when considering our religious world. It argues all the more strongly for the role of Tradition, Liturgy, the many things that we engage in that are not strictly “Scripture interpretation.” It is not until the heart itself is reformed (that place where some very large percentage of our thoughts and decisions are made) that our reading will actually be changed. If the heart is not being rather consciously (on the part of the Church) formed by the pracatices we have been given (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, veneration of icons, crossing oneself, etc.) then it is likely being formed by something else. It seems that we will either be formed by the Tradition of the Christian Church or by the traditions of modern mammon. Thus I will gladly entrust myself to the Church.

Apparently Romans 12:1-2 does not have any middle ground.

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


9 responses to “Being Formed in the Tradition”

  1. Jeff Avatar

    Of course, I think it also important, to underscore what you’ve said here, that the word that is translated into “mind” here, is, in fact, the nous.

  2. bríde Avatar

    Based on this post, it seems that being formed in the Tradition – especially for those not originally in it – is the working of a 2nd, 3rd, or nth order desire. By desiring to have one’s heart reformed – by desiring a better desire – one enters the place where this transformation may occur. Practices, after all, require discipline, which is why Christ told his Holy Apostles to “make disciples”, and discipline, while achieved through the working of God, helps us to be receptive to the energy of God.

    Oh, that the hunger and thirst for righteousness might be primary in each of us!

  3. orrologion Avatar

    “Counseling Democrats to Go for the Gut” by Patricia Cohen in the July 10, 2007 Arts section of the New Yor Times discusses much the same topic, i.e., how we make decisions. The article discusses the psychological findings of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation” (PublicAffairs) by Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlana.

    For more, see:


  4. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    To expand on Jeff’s comment about the Greek word ‘nous’: The modern English understanding of the word “mind” is so inferior in understanding as to actually render the normal interpretation of this scripture passage almost blasphemous. The normal understanding of “mind” transforms the action of the Holy Spirit on our whole being into a mental assent to an intellectual precept; exchanges communion with the living God for a mere thought about Him; silences the call to live in the mysterion of God and replaces it with legalistic formulae. ‘Nous’ includes everything the English language means by mind, heart, soul, and much more. It is the core of our being where we commune either with God or the world. It is the door upon which our Savior knocks.

    If I am not mistaken the Tradition of the Church equates the purification of the nous (renewing of the mind) with salvation. It is the cross that we are called upon to take up daily in compunction and tears. The continual grace of the liturgical and personal prayers especially the Divine Liturgy, confession, feast, fast, charity and the chance to bear one another’s burdens is the only milieu in which I could ever hope to participate in it. At the same time, it is often quite painful because the reprobate “mind” within is constantly revealed to me.

    The Church reminds us even in the midst of the joyous announcement of the Nativity of the flight into Egypt, the Cross, the grave, the tomb, the burden of temptation that Joseph bore, by the grace of God. The temptation which he overcame to deny the divine/human being within Mary and “put her away”.

    My poor brain is quickly over come and if I am to remain in Christ I must submit to His love and knowledge as revealed in His person and in the Church.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar


    I agree that the modern word “mind” is insufficient for all the weight St Paul would have meant by “nous.” However, I will also say to Jeff, that you cannot put the whole of Palamite theology into the content of St. Paul’s use of the word. Words do change and some acquire much more specific theological meaning in time. For instance, the words hypostasis and homoousios acquire completely different meanings in the careful use of the Church. Words get taken up and used in a very technical way. I do not think St. Paul was here expounding what will later become the fullness of the doctrine of Hesychasm, though it’s a verse that would be important in that context.

    My observation, if I can offer it here, is that many modern Orthodox put too much emphasis on the technical vocabulary of hesychasm, theosis, etc., and not enough emphasis on God. This is not to be argumentative, but I have seen Orthodox vocabulary used much like the jargon that marks membership in a group.

    The average Orthodox Christian through the ages would not have known the special vocabulary, but might have known God quite deeply. And many monks might have known the vocabulary but not have known God. St. Ignatius’ Brianchaninov’s The Arena is probably my favorite read on this.

    It reminds me as well a quote I heard from young Fr. John Hopko (Fr. Thomas’ son) that his father is spending his retirement, going around reminding people that it’s all really about God. A good thing to remember.

    But having said all that – it is absolutely the case that there is a need for a renewing of the nous (in all its hesychastic meaning) and that the “practices” given us in the Tradition (“practices” is a favorite word of Stanley Hauerwas, so I’m using a non-Orthodox term here) are utterly necessary for the long road of salvation that works in our lives. But I’m just as convinced that my focus on that road needs to be Christ, always Christ. Apart from Him we can do nothing (as He said).

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, here’s my point: the Traditional interpretation within the Church of the passage from Romans that I have been taught is quite different than the typical western interpretation. The experience of the saints long before St. Gregory of Palamas was far deeper than the common understanding of the word ‘mind’ in English. I frankly don’t care that, for some, words such as ‘nous’ and ‘noetic’ are simply jargon. To me they express both the process and actuality of genuine union with Jesus Christ in a way that takes paragraphs in English. If you are uncomfortable with their use, you are free to find other words with which you are comfortable. If you can find ones that express the same ideas in a compact way, I’d be glad to know them. However, I will continue to use ‘nous’ and ‘noetic’ as I feel appropriate because they are not jargon to me but particularly expressive of the living presence of Christ our God in us. In us! Not external, not a mere thought passing through our brain or a twisted legalism used to condemn others and justify ourselves.

    The Orthodox approach to the spiritual life is far different than what is commonly taught in the west. That is one of the primary reasons I am Orthodox. Western Christianity never appealed to me in any of its forms. It appeared nothing but jargon to me–without substance. I wanted more. The Orthodox Church is where I found Him, living. Since becoming Orthodox, I have had the opportunity to meet Christians from other traditions who clearly know our Lord, that is always a blessing, but it behooves us to avoid passive acceptance of the western assumptions on what knowing Jesus Christ means even by implication. To do so is to step away from the revelation of Him that we have been given. I don’t find that in your writing so your seeming reluctance to make the distinction simply because of a potential jargon problem puzzles me.

  7. William Avatar

    I did not read Fr. Stephen to be reluctant to affirm and use the full hesychastic meaning of the word “nous,” only giving us the very sensible reminder that the content of St. Paul’s use of “nous” is different than our use of the word as it has been worked out by centuries of patristic experience, and the reminder that the use of words is secondary to the reality of life, which can be lived in the Church with or without the full grasp of the technical terminology. To say otherwise would be to fall into the supposedly Western trap of mental assents.

    Fr. Stephen was following Fr. Hopko in reminding us that our use of words must serve to keep us focused on Christ, not on the words themselves. One in the Church can still know the living Christ, even without the right vocabulary, which requires the reading of many books to properly understand. “Nous” and “noetic” are wonderful words full of deep meaning, but you can’t just toss them out in casual conversation, even with many Orthodox, and expect you’ll be properly understood; but you can easily be understood by using the word “mind” or “heart” with perhaps a few brief sentences of explanation.

    But one thing is certain: St. Paul’s use of “nous” is still far deeper than the frequent modern connotations of the English word “mind,” because the word in the Greek world of Paul’s day had philosophical and religious connotations as being the highest faculty of the human soul and the part of man that directs a correctly ordered life as well as the aspect of man that can encounter and know the absolute. It was also a word that often equated to “heart” in the Old Testament. That being said, even when I wasn’t Orthodox, I personally never thought of my mind as simply being my logical or rational or chemical brain or the storehouse of my meager knowledge. I thought of it as my very self, conscious and unconscious.

    Never in my time as a Protestant was the verse in Romans about the renewing of the mind taught as anything less than a transformation of one’s entire inner man at a level deeper than conscious understanding, and including the heart. It was never reduced to mere assent to precepts.

    I really think one must be careful about setting up a continual opposition between Orthodoxy and what is “Western.” I know the distinctions are real and that the correct Orthodox understanding must be emphasized against widespread misconceptions, but some of those misconceptions have more to do with Western-originated (but now global) modernism and two-story living (as Fr. Stephen has described it) rather than classical Protestant or Catholic understandings of the spiritual life. Often, I hear Orthodox critique “Western Christianity” and I wonder if they really have seen the same Western Christianity that I have. So much is exaggerated. And I in no way mean to downplay the very real differences.

  8. Patty Joanna, nee Patty in WA Avatar
    Patty Joanna, nee Patty in WA

    Dear William, and Michael, and Father Stephen,

    Prepare to forgive this newly illumined (Christmas Eve) sinner. I will need it.

    It has been my contention for a long time that there is a big span of what constitutes “Western Christianity”. In my experience, I have long seen closer proximity from my church of 30 years to the Orthodox tradition than to much of the American version of Christianity. The lumping of all of what is not Orthodox into a big blob does a lot to make evangelism a lot more difficult. AR made this point in one of her comments in another post–that her move toward Calvinism was actually a move toward Orthdoxy, in that she was moving away from the “vending machine God” she could control to the One True Sovereign God.

    The only reason I mention this is that it seems to me that in our conversations with “Western Christians” we should be mindful that there is an enormous span of difference within that designation, and the more we recognize it, the more sensitive we can be to what is most needful in our encounters.

    I agree with William that there are clearly distinctions–or why would I have made the journey? But there is a lot of difference among “Western” Christians as well, an enormous span, and we would do well to be mindful of assuming that the bit we have seen of it is all there is. To tell you the truth, the people who had the most to do with my becoming Orthodox were a Presbyterian pastor (not running from the denomination but to the God he loves and *knows*), a devout Roman Catholic who has befriended me for 20 years and a lovely Orthodox family and an Orthodox priest who have never once criticized my faith path, but have with outstretched hands welcomed me to the fulness. Of course, the Holy Spirit was in charge.

    Christ is born! Glorify Him!

  9. fatherstephen Avatar


    Your points are well made, and I trust your use of the words. I’m just careful about jargon because it is too common, and especially among converts such as myself. I’m cautious about it because the reality is God (which I know you agree with from other things you’ve said). I tend to avoid jargon if I can find another word useful or even a paragraph if need be – both to make the Orthodox faith accessible and to avoid the pitfalls that accompany jargon and its “insider” aspect.

    In some recent reading, (Papanikolauou’s Being with God) I found some interesting criticism of the equation with purification of the nous with salvation (from unimpeachable Orthodox sources). Some recent works have almost popularized the word “nous” as well as a simplified scheme of salvation (purification, illumination, deification) that is, I think, less than the fullness as it is stated. Our real challenge as Orthodox Christians will be to live the minute struggles of all these things and become the fullness of the faith rather than to master the words and be well-armed for argument with others. (I do not see you doing this – don’t misunderstand me). Really, as William noted, my only point was to say that St. Paul’s use of nous was not yet what it would become in later writings, and thus I see it as less significant there than I would when it would be used by St. Gregory Palamas, for instance.

    I meant no rebuke to anyone, please forgive me if I came across that way. It’s been an extremely full week and I’m writing a bit more tiredly than usual. Your prayers, please.

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