Form and Conformity – How Tradition Saves Us

When C.S. Lewis tried to describe the nature of reality as undergirded with order and discernible principles (The Abolition of Man), he looked for a term that would be more easily palpable to a secularized audience that was already becoming highly resistant to Christian terminology. He chose the Chinese term, the Tao, as a disarming approach to the question. Modernity is, strangely, far more receptive to the “wisdom” of non-Western cultures, while hostile to its own heritage. That itself is worthy of an article. But, for now, I’ll simply note Lewis’ attempt to speak of a reality that is a perceived and widely-accepted concept, even outside of the Christian tradition. We could ask of the universe: “Why is there something rather than nothing? And Why is the something orderly rather than chaotic?” It is this second question that interests me in this article.

In the language of early-modern physics, this order beneath things was explained in terms of “laws.” Behind that choice of words was an earlier assumption that there had been a “Lawgiver” who established the order of things. Lewis’ “Tao” sets that question aside for the sake of discussion. He offers this:

This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’. Some of the accounts of it which I have quoted will seem, perhaps, to many of you merely quaint or even magical. But what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect. It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not.

This contention stands in contrast to the current rage that reality is a “social construct,” whose order and meaning is imposed by our own collective imagination, and subject to amendment and re-configuration whenever we choose. It assumes that “reality” is the result of a collective will, with the frightening corollary that a collective will can therefore be used to change it. It is frightening because its only applications have been associated with some of the greatest crimes against humanity in history. Fixing “reality” is, apparently, a very bloody business.

For a moment, I will focus attention on the commonality within Lewis’ observation. It would be possible to say that religions tend to share the observation that there is a “givenness” to the world that is best treated with acknowledgement and acquiescence. That givenness lies behind the ubiquity of sentiments such as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (or words to that effect). If half-a-dozen religions and numerous philosophies, originating in widely separated cultures, agree on something, chances are they do so because they have all seen the same thing. That does not suggest that they believe in the same thing, but that they live in the same universe and that this universe has some clear, observable things about it. That said, I want to turn to the Christian understanding of the matter.

St. John introduced what became the foundation for all later Christian discussion when he described Christ as the “Logos” of God. The term can be translated “Word,” “Ordering Principle,” “Meaning,” and a number of other related concepts. It is not that it has multiple meanings. Rather, it is the case that it means all of those things at the same time.

The universe in which we live, St. John says, is created “through the Logos,” and that “nothing that was made was made apart from Him.” Of course, the most astounding thing written by St. John is that the Logos is actually the only-begotten Son of the Father, who became flesh as the God/Man, Jesus of Nazareth. This assertion means that the very principles that underlie all things are utterly consistent with Jesus Christ. For the Christian, it means that what is perceived in the level of “nature,” is not a contradiction of Christ, and that nature itself can only be rightly understood in union with Christ.

There is another corollary to this: we live in a world in which “givenness” plays a primary role. This should be obvious to everyone. That it is not is a commentary on the failed “spirituality of modernity” (to coin a phrase). Our daily experience constantly presents us with unchangeable realities. American health care in 2018 amounted to $3.65 trillion – an expense engendered by the unchangeable reality of illness. We live in the margins of an unyielding reality, controlling very tiny things and managing only the most minute aspects of our existence. Imagining that we are doing more than this is pure delusion.

We have a “traditioned” existence – it is handed down to us from everything that has gone before. What we are and who we are and the context of our existence is utterly bound up with the billions of lives that have preceded us as well as the sheer givenness of all things. Given that this is the case, it is little wonder that the common wisdom throughout human history has been to understand the world as it is and find our proper and healthy place within it. It is only in the madness of modernity’s imaginings that people have begun to think that everything can be molded and re-created according to the human will. The fact that this is wrong at the deepest level underlies the massive violence of our times.

A profound part of Orthodox Christian tradition is the place of understanding and embracing Divine Providence. Christ Himself and His redemption of the world are the concrete evidence and proof that God is utterly committed to the world and to working out of His good will in its midst. The world is not given to us as a problem to be solved or a project to be completed. The Kingdom of God is not an agenda. The work of God in the world, however, is just as much a given as the force of gravity or the properties of math.

St. Dionysius describes the givenness of the universe’s spiritual structure under the heading of “hierarchy” (“holy order”). The mystical structure of the liturgy is, for him, just such an example. We might say the same thing for the whole of the Orthodox way of life.

That way sets forth a path of wisdom, in which the commandments of Christ and the tradition of the Church describe for us how we should walk. It is a path that sees and walks past the delusions of the age while revealing the hidden journey of the heart to God. Only the Logos Himself can make known to us the logos of our own true self. This establishes a fundamental stance for a true spiritual life – we listen, we observe, we are discipled. Tradition (that which is handed down) is a word that describes the nature of true existence.

Most wonderfully revealed to us in Jesus Christ is the fact that the Logos is life, light, and love. We are being formed in His image as we keep the commandments, forgiving everyone for everything, giving thanks for all things.

Glory to God.



About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.



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21 responses to “Form and Conformity – How Tradition Saves Us”

  1. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Dear Fr Stephen,
    I wish I had time to say more. But all that I can say now is that this is a wonderful article because it speaks of our reality, in response to the construction of modernity, both eloquently and succinctly.

  2. Amy Filler Avatar

    Thank you Father Stephen! i appreciate your posts immensely. Today’s post spoke to my aching heart.
    We don’t know much about Divine Providence in the west. Perhaps another time you will add to my understanding in this regard.
    Glory to God for all things!

  3. Byron Avatar

    So much here. Many thanks for this, Father!

  4. Maya Avatar

    The Logos is also the Truth. Which means that the imaginings of modernity, being so far from Christ and the Cross, are lies. Deceitfully convincing for many, powerful and fancy, but still just lies.

  5. Philip Avatar

    As a home-brewer, I take some delight in my simple brew rig. In contrast with my brew-buddies who have expensive systems with multiples pumps, I use … gravity. When chided for my simple ways, I love to explain that I find gravity is fairly consistent, easily accessed, and can be found in most places I brew. Plus I like the price.

    “The work of God in the world, however, is just as much a given as the force of gravity or the properties of math.”


  6. Christopher Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    This and the previous essay’s word on “violence” and “fixing” has me thinking of the reaction of some in the Church (especially those in NA ironically) to the stresses in Her around patriarchates, territory, “schism” and the like. My point is not to discuss the details here, but to say that even I (I thought I saw it coming) have been surprised at the level of vitriol, amateur theologizing and (canon) lawyering, etc. The anxiety underlying all this is of course real and has substantial causes, but my goodness. I have to repent of my initial reaction to your “Border Collies of Paradise” essay you briefly put up (last year some time if memory serves) and would encourage you to repost it or an update, as I believe it to be related to these themes and of course is timely.

  7. Isaac Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    The “givenness” of reality, and the need to “acquiesce” to it (rather than “manage” it) is a frequent theme to your writings. I see the wisdom in what you are saying. I’m wondering how, in your mind, we determine the level of “management” appropriate in our lives and world?

    For example, some things seem like they ought to be managed as well as possible: our finances tend to go badly when unmanaged. A nation should manage its food production carefully to ensure there is enough food and proper use (and not overuse) of land and bodies of water. We have successfully eliminated the threat of many specific diseases. Our health is usually better when we manage it well.

    Is the answer simply that, like other pleasures in life, “management” is something to be done properly and in moderation, seen as a means and not an end unto itself? Or is all management suspect?

    I was specifically thinking of the eradication of polio when you said:

    “It would be possible to say that religions tend to share the observation that there is a ‘givenness’ to the world that is best treated with acknowledgement and acquiescence.”

    This seems dangerous if taken to an extreme, such that anything which befalls us we say, “This is how the world is, it cannot be changed.” The other extreme is also dangerous, “I can change anything that does not match my desire.”

    What would you say is the proper balance here?

  8. Blagica Avatar

    These days I read at the FB page of interpreter pound an attempt to give an explicit def. of “tradition” of course presenting a specific point of view, alongside.
    Tradition (n)
    Peer pressure of dead people.

    I thought about the value of tradition connected to reality and living in the “Truth”. Where I live, practising orthodoxy for centuries is maybe expected to confuse it with tradition and when connected to the faith it turns very easily into superstition. So , on important orthodox celebrations, and many other events, for people is very important to stick to the tradition. I am not a theologian, but especially the fact that passing on of God the Holy Spirit as the third face of the Holy Trinity through the living faith inside the Church, is considered tradition as passing on a folk tale really sounds and feels misleading. I consider tradition to be close to habit, sth that orthodoxy has nothing to do with. Loving Christ can’t be achieved when you comfortably
    agree to the merits of the traditional values.
    Sorry Father Stephen for taking freedom to explain my views, but I felt I had to cause I was really thinking of this social phenomenon and I was glad to see it on your blog at the same time 🙂

  9. Jp Esnouf Avatar
    Jp Esnouf

    Another wonderful read! Thank you Fr Stephen,

    I just finished your book Every Where Present – it was life changing – or reality changing might be a better description. It also helps me when i read your posts to see the heart of what you write about.

    Cant wait for you to write on this, “Modernity is, strangely, far more receptive to the “wisdom” of non-Western cultures, while hostile to its own heritage. That itself is worthy of an article.”


  10. ScottTX Avatar

    “Modernity is, strangely, far more receptive to the ‘wisdom’ of non-Western cultures, while hostile to its own heritage.”

    When you’re steeped in something you see all its warts.

    Non-Western wisdom looks to Westerners like a Facebook family- all vacations and pleasant dinners, no yelling, backbiting, or flying fists. The convert cools once he sees the vices that were always there but the evangelists hid.

  11. Paula AZ Avatar
    Paula AZ

    Scott…I like your levelheadedness.
    Yeah, when steeped you see all the warts…the familiarity thing.
    Warts are all over – east, west, north, south. Divisions. The underlying “conspiracy” of the evil one. He is no respecter of places, peoples, nations, lands. He’d like to bring them all down. He begins by dividing within the “houses”. Seems like we easily fall into his trap. It is indeed a snare.
    There is no such thing as “wisdom of the east” or west as in a place. Wisdom is a Person. Logos is a Person. God the Son. He transcends this worldly wisdom which divides, and He exists beyond, way beyond… proclaiming “I AM…the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, who is and who was and who is to come”.
    The following verse, Fr Stephen’s simple message for us, not to “fix”, but to “do”:
    ” Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.”
    Oh I pray that we can turn away from all the divisions by following Christ and actually do what He commands! By ‘turn away’ I do not mean that we should be ignorant of such things, but to avoid constantly turning to them, taking them to heart, then to argue, debate, taking our eyes off our own sins, only to condemn and to curse those even in our own “house”! Let God take care of these things! As He has been doing all along. We’re still here…the Church is still here. The Body of Christ shall not, can not, be dissolved, no matter how it appears in times of trouble. And we have been for a very long time, in times of trouble. But Christ tells us Do not Fear, I have overcome the world. I pray we live by these words. We’re not going to succeed in doing anything “good” apart from Him. All else is vanity and a waste of precious time.
    St Paul says to redeem the time, ” See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil….be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ , submitting to one another in the fear of God.”
    We’ve heard these things for 2000 years, God knowing that we would have to because of the hardness of our heart. If it were not for His mercy, we’d perish. That’s enough right there to give thanks for. And a good reason to be contrite, to have compassion and to forgive. As we have been forgiven.

  12. Beakerj Avatar

    I like this concept of the givenness of things, that many of humanity sense. I think as humans we need some order, stability & unchangingness (is that a word), to go along with all the change we see. I know I do, & it’s why I feel peaceful around old buildings, or old trees.

    I would welcome your prayers for my anxiety Father, knowing that you understand this from the inside.

  13. Drewster2000 Avatar


    I’ll give you my thoughts on your questions about management vs. acquiescing. I like to think of it in terms of being children. If you ask a child to sweep a floor or butter toast, they will. Usually the quality of their work is lacking and you have to come behind them to finish the job – though often this makeup work is done without their knowledge if you’re trying to preserve their pride.

    In the same way we are called to manage our finances (your example). This is good and proper and everyone should do it. But it would be folly to think the budget balanced and we were able to save up money SOLELY due to our own efforts. To understand this we have to step back once in awhile and realize how many things went right in order to get this result, as well as how many things didn’t go wrong.

    We are called to manage and steward things – and our role here is very important – but to go at it with the idea that everything depends upon us is both incorrect and maddening.

  14. Dino Avatar

    I agree with Drewster, I also think that one of the key culprits on this is secularism. It creates a world in which everything is inevitably “leading away from the mark”.
    It reminds me of how communism being a dreadful counterfeit of a coenobium. Let me explain:
    Take ‘management’ in a monastery for instance, it is often extremely well organized. People who have given up possessions have outsourced the management of their lives to others (who have also given up everything), in trusting love. These others have the humbling responsibility to manage according to the eternal principles of love, provided by their God whom they trustingly love.
    The secularized version of that however is not the same thing at all. It is as I see it here, communism: People have no possessions and have outsourced the management of their lives to others (to a central government). These others have no responsibility to manage according to the eternal principles of love, provided by their God, in fact, ‘principles’ are seen as social constructs, and religion is rejected…
    Secularly influenced ideas of management always have an influence of this second version creeping into them. This can even creep into the Church: because if God does not go between you and your objectives/ideals/plans etc, then your objectives/ideals/plans will go between you and your God.
    So, a person can only retain the respectful stewardship of the first example, (when they are assigned some management task), to the degree that they are aware of the sacred responsibility of the priestly, kingly and prophetic life of Christian tradition. To that degree they can then be respectful of the Mystery of Existence in Everyone and Everything. They then become a reflection of Heaven on Earth, with ‘Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven’, in both their ‘action’ as well as their ‘inaction’.

  15. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    This might be the single best comment I’ve read in a long time (including my own).

  16. Dean Avatar

    Yes, thank you Father and Dino. Father, I think you are myopic when it comes to reading what you yourself write. Probably good for preserving humility. It must be like when someone says to you, “Oh, you remind me so much of uncle Henry in your…looks, mannerisms, etc. And yet you cannot see it at all. But often others outside the family see these things when we cannot.
    Keep up the writing, both of you!
    Father, I see your retirement dinner is scheduled for Jan. third. Oh how I wish we weren’t 2,000+ miles away!!

  17. Dino Avatar

    to be perfectly frank, these are only observations that come (100%) from your writing, thank You.

  18. Isaac Avatar

    Dino/Drewster2000, thank you for the responses. It seems to me that you are saying, at least in part, that the focus and purpose of “management” differs from an Orthodox and secular point of view, and that these differing “aims” will result in a management that differs in both form and purpose.

    For example, take the need to manage our finances. A secular financial management is aimed at maximizing comfort and pleasure, and reducing stress. Thus the goal is to someday not work, to retire, and to have enough money to buy things (stuff, travel, etc.) that matter to you.

    A Christian financial management would have some similarities, but does so out of a holy stewardship, a desire to bless others, and in thanksgiving for what one has. It becomes part of a sacramental life where the Christian must discharge his “talents” with wisdom and love. This will at times lead to different actions, such sacrificing to help the poor and the church.

    In many ways it seems the external actions would be similar, but the underlying motivations are very different, which in some key instances would lead to very different actions.

    Am I understanding correctly?

  19. Dino Avatar

    Great way of putting it Isaac…

  20. Agata Avatar

    Isaac, Dino and Drewster,

    Your conversation reminded me about something I recently read in an article about large families:
    “He who doesn’t trust God should make efforts to find solutions and get out of a scrape on his own. And nobody guarantees that he will succeed. But if he confides in God, the Latter won’t let him down. There are many families with four and five children among our acquaintances, and none of them go hungry.”

    I think this is very much related to what Dino said in his comment, that the “eternal principles” are at play – meaning: it’s the Lord doing the work and rewarding us because we trust in Him and love Him.

    My personal experience of recent years has been very similar (Father Stephen and some of the readers of this blog know it rather well by now). I can most honestly say that ever since I gave my life (and that of my children) over to God’s care, even the finances have improved miraculously and beyond my personal ability to have such influence on them. All I can ever say about it is “It’s all God’s doing, to his greater Glory! Thanks and Glory to Him!”

  21. Drewster2000 Avatar


    To put the secular/Christian management perspective on finances another way…

    The secular version amounts to you using all your skills and wisdom so that yes, you have money put away for retirement, the kids’ education, maybe even a regular donation to a regular charity – but all having to do with you doing what seems best for you and yours.

    The Christian way is to invite God into the conversation and into the equation. He might call you to do something which at the time seems financially foolish. Or despite your best efforts you may find that you are never able to balance the budget without constantly praying for Him to make up your lack each month.

    The second method is very different. It is an adventure. And it is not a process you control. You are still required to show up and do the best you can, but there is an inherent understanding (that can take a long time to acquire) that it will never come to a place where you have it all figured out.

    Ironically everyone eventually reaches a point (whether in this life or the next) where they finally understand that they don’t have it all under control and actually need God. But the Christian has let God be a part of the management process early on instead of waiting until they reach rock bottom.

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