The Tradition of Being Human

Being human is a cultural event. No one is human by themselves and no one becomes human without the help of those around them.

This is so obvious it should not need to be stated, but contemporary man often imagines himself to be his own creation. The exercise of individual freedom is exalted as the defining characteristic of our existence: “I am what I choose to be.” To suggest that most of who and what we are is beyond the realm of choice would seem to be a heresy, an insult to the modern project.

The primary mode of cultural education is not choice – rather – it is tradition. Most of what and who we are is “handed down” to us (literally “traditioned”). For the most part it is an unconscious process – both for the one who delivers the tradition as well as for the one who receives it. From the smallest actions of speaking to a baby, slowly passing on language, to the highest actions of belief and understanding, the vast majority of what forms and shapes us will have come through a traditioning. Free choice is largely exercised within the tradition: chocolate and vanilla are choices but both exist within the same tradition of ice cream.

We’re often not very aware of the “tradition” in which we live. A student in a classroom would readily agree that the words of a teacher or professor were a “traditioning” of sorts. But they will fail to notice that how the room is arranged, how the students sit, what the students wear (or don’t wear), how the professor is addressed, how students address one another, what questions are considered appropriate and what are not, and a whole world of unspoken, unwritten expectations are utterly required in the process. The modern world often imagines that “online” education is equivalent to classroom education since the goal is merely the transmission of information. But the transmission of information includes the process of acquiring the information and everything that surrounds it. Those receiving the “tradition” online will have perhaps similar information to those receiving it in a classroom – but they will not receive the same information.

This reduction of the world to information is a common error of the modern period. The world and data-about-the-world are considered to be the same thing. The reduction of the world to information is the reduction of what it means to be human. And the result is a diminished person.

The Christian faith is neither immune from nor above this cultural requirement. From the most simple forms of Evangelicalism to the fullness of Orthodoxy, traditioning is the primary form of religious enculturation. It is simply how people learn. The denial of the role of tradition does not remove tradition from its place, it simply narrows the field of vision such that people become unaware of what they are doing.

Years ago, an Anglican priest friend visited a Baptist Church for the first time in his life. He had never seen this most common form of Protestant Evangelicalism. I laughed the next week when he describe his experience. “I went in the Church and I wasn’t sure where to bow!” He said. “There was no Cross!”

The same experience could have been reversed as a Baptist might describe his dismay at crossings and bowings and the like. But something is  being taught and transmitted by such actions (or their lack). The Evangelical might complain that he sees “idolatry,” while their absence, for a liturgical Christian, can convey a lack of the presence of God or a lack of respect for the things of God.

To learn to be a human is to live in a tradition. 

In Orthodoxy, Tradition is both conscious and unconscious. It is conscious in that its reality is acknowledged and considered carefully. It is unconscious in that most of it operates in a manner that is not frequently discussed. It is both what things are done and how they are done.

But above this is the understanding of the Holy Spirit itself as the Tradition.

But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him. (1Jo 2:27)

I’ve often wondered at how people think the Holy Spirit is supposed to “teach us all things.” Early in my Christian life I thought there should be some sort of inner urging or near-voice whispering, “Walk this way…”  But time has taught me that such promptings are often rooted well outside of God. Some would dryly suggest that the anointing of the Spirit guides us solely through the Scriptures. But that inevitably means that the cultural matrix of the world precedes the Spirit and shapes the reading of Scripture.

There is, instead, the teaching of Orthodox Christianity that offers the whole of the faithful people of God as the place in which and within which the Spirit forms and shapes us.

He who possesses in truth the word of Jesus can hear even its silence. (St. Ignatius of Antioch)

The life of the Church, lived in continuity with the gospel, bears within it the ever-renewing life of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is that which gives shape and informs the Church (and its ethos). It is this inner life and ethos that is recognized regardless of the outward culture in which it is incarnate. Over time, the Church-as-ethos, forms and shapes even the culture in which it lives.

All of this is deeply challenged in the modern world, for every ethos that is not the ethos of commerce and consumption is challenged. Religious believing is allowed a place within the ethos of commerce and consumption – as a form of ideas to be consumed or sold. Thus evangelism in the modern world is often pursued in terms of our consumer culture. But this distorts the gospel. To “choose” the gospel reduces the Kingdom of God to something that can be comprehended. We cannot freely choose what we do not understand.

If the “gospel” that you have embraced was received in a manner that can be described as “consumption,” then you have yet to perceive the gospel or heard the truth as it is in Christ.

When the presentation of the gospel becomes an invitation to choose, the cultural message, the “ethos” of such a gospel is saying something that is profoundly untrue and the gospel itself has been changed. There are indeed choices to be made along the path to salvation, but the gospel itself transcends such moments.

The pattern in the early Church for the proclamation of the gospel involved an invitation to a way of life. That invitation was not followed by immediate initiation – but by preparation. The process of catechesis (learning) often lasted as much as three years. It was closer to the process required for becoming the citizen of a new country than to marketing and consumption. The same process, or a similar tradition, remains the proper manner of evangelization.

The gospel is given to human beings. St. Paul uses terms such as “revealed” to describe the nature of the gospel. Indeed, even on a personal level he uses such language:

But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace, to reveal His Son in me, that I might preach Him among the Gentiles…(Gal 1:15-16 NKJ)

We must not think of St. Paul’s revelation as consisting of nothing more than a decision on the road to Damascus. For he goes from there to Damascus and is baptized. He spends an unknown length of time in what he calls “Arabia” with no purpose described. But he returned to Damascus and remained there for three years. Then he made his first post-conversion journey to Jerusalem and met with the leaders there.

And the context of St. Paul’s conversion is already the same ethos shared by the disciples – Judaism. The new ethos into which he is baptized is a refinement and fulfillment of what he already knows.

Modern persons are formed in an ethos that is often alien to the gospel – and it is an ethos that destroys the soul. Loneliness, compulsion, and bondage to the passions through the materialist culture of consumerism leave us hungry – but ill-prepared for spiritual food. Salvation (understood in the fullest sense of the word) requires spiritual formation. We must learn and be formed by the Tradition of the Spirit in the ethos of Christ’s self-sacrificing way of life.

The Church itself rightly exists only when it is the embodiment and expression of that way of life – only when it can nurture human persons within its womb and give birth to gods, to paraphrase the fathers.

This inner life and power of formation, experienced as ethos, is the manifestation of Christ’s promise of the Spirit. This is the guidance into all truth, in the only way that is truly human. We are not thinkers or choosers. Human beings live – we rightly live in a manner that is itself a fullness. Only a fullness of life, a living ethos given as tradition can truly form human beings. We have never been formed in any other way, nor can we be.

Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle. Now may our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and our God and Father, who has loved us and given us everlasting consolation and good hope by grace, comfort your hearts and establish you in every good word and work. (2Th 2:15-17)

Just so.

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.






75 responses to “The Tradition of Being Human”

  1. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father, would it be right to say that the modern ethos is formed outside our hearts in a way that leaves it highly open to the influence of the evil one,?

  2. Matthew Avatar

    Ok … here we go …

    How do we move from Tradition being something that is unchanging and static to something organic and alive that can change and grow? Should this movement even be sought?

    In terms of women and the priesthood, for example, will the Tradition ever have something else to say to us about this?

  3. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, the Orthodox prohibition against women in the priesthood is rooted in spiritual function and Sacrament not worldly power, authority and image. So, I hope the female priesthood or Deaconate has no roots in the Orthodox people and the Church.

  4. Matthew Avatar

    I decided for Christ. So did my wife. What does that mean?

  5. Matthew Avatar

    Fr. Stephen … the photo is simply wonderful! Thanks so much.

  6. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Matthew, Jesus was the only option that ever made sense. In repentance, I know Him the best. The Jesus who forgives so generously as to humble even me—at least a little: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

  7. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    It means that God was at work in your life in ways that you probably were not aware of. You responded well.

  8. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Women in the priesthood and deaconate are a hot-button in some conversations in Orthodoxy. I would read widely on this subject. I don’t recall any “prohibition” per se. Please, Father, correct me on this.

    However, it has been the tradition of Orthodoxy from the very beginning that women were not priests. This follows the ancient Jewish tradition I believe and also exemplifies the ontological meaning of man and woman.

  9. Drewster2000 Avatar


    From the way I understand it, the handing down of tradition involves transmitting the never-changing truths of God to the ever-changing lives of people. The end result is you find that some things change…and some don’t. Sorting out which is which seems to be part of that “working out your salvation with fear and trembling” process.

  10. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    You haven’t understood the article. Tradition does not change and grow. It is nothing other than the life of God within the Church. God does not change and grow. Tradition does not mean “what we did before.” It will take time to understand the nature of Tradition in the Orthodox Church. It’s not about history so much as it is about God Himself within our common life.

    There are some who argue for women in the diaconate (there once was such a thing). However, the present reasons given are rooted in modern feminist arguments, rather than the Tradition, and for a female diaconate that is radically different than the earlier version. As for priesthood – not an option. But, I do not care to get into the arguments surrounding this on the blog.

  11. Simon Avatar

    Is ‘being human’ a nature or nurture? I think there is strong evidence that is in favor of a nature that requires a nurture. There are many examples of feral children raised by non-human species. From the reports that have been collected on these cases it is clear that the capacity for language, abstract thought, and conscience are impaired and outside the possibility of development. As psychological creatures we have evolved for cultural socialization. Love, compassion, sympathy, and justice are valued because they are vital for group cohesion, which is really learned in the family. Without families to cultivate and model love, compassion, sympathy etc., etc. society will undergo decline.

    The culture in the West has many advantages that have been absent in most other cultures in the past. The problem in America is that it is only 250 years old. In the span of historical time America is a very young country. Juvenile, really. Like any other juvenile it is easy to criticize. But, in its short history it has created a number of course corrections that have granted greater civil liberties to its citizens. In 250 years it fought a revolutionary way, it again fought the world’s largest empire a 2nd time, it was torn by a Civil war, and then fought in two world wars. This government has made horrible mistakes. But, which one hasn’t? Every single nation on Earth has its sins.

    Humanity has been in the making for millions of years. There is no way that a culture this young and having been through so much can possibly understand what the proper limits of freedom should be. Patience is required because real change is a deep time event. Change that happens quickly is catastrophic change.

    Freedom is a terrible gift. And the worst freedom of all is the freedom of abandonment.

  12. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    As you rightly say in the article, the Western culture inculcates its ethos while at the same time making false claims that it promotes freedom of choice (as antithesis to tradition).

    I like how you point out how a classroom is typically run: who is seated, who is standing, who is at the “front” of the classroom, and who is not. We accept these things, often without questioning.

    The life of the Church, lived in continuity with the gospel, bears within it the ever-renewing life of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is that which gives shape and informs the Church (and its ethos). It is this inner life and ethos that is recognized regardless of the outward culture in which it is incarnate. Over time, the Church-as-ethos, forms and shapes even the culture in which it lives.

    I pray that this might be so in this culture.

    Last but not least, regarding the Protestant view of “choosing Christ”:

    John 15:16 was an eye-opener for me when I was a catechumen. The very first Orthodox icon of Christ I obtained and still venerate contains this verse.

  13. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I thought of citing that verse as well.

    I saw a meme today that described the birth of Christ as an “unplanned pregnancy.” It was a pro-life message, and well-intended. But, I thought to myself, “that pregnancy was planned before the foundation of the world.” Again, it’s a case where our modern sensibilities override everything else. Indeed, Mary said, “Yes.” In that moment, she embraced the “plan” and the fullness of her own existence.

  14. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yes. It’s a nature – that requires a nurture. A new-born buffalo can walk and keep up with the herd in a matter of 6 minutes, I learned today. Human beings are born requiring a long, extended period of nurture. The insanity of the modern world is most clearly marked in its efforts to overthrow many of the most important human traditions. That effort reveals that modernity itself (or parts of its philosophy) are some of the most dangerous parasites the world has ever known.

  15. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    The American culture seems to still have most of the class structure of other Western cultures from which it is derived. But it has built an ethos to make such class distinctions less obvious. True, we don’t have people we call “Lords”. But inheritance provides built-in advantages seen elsewhere. Slavery was abolished and replaced with another sort of slavery. Free enterprise usually isn’t free.

    For various reasons, not only due to my personal history but the history of my family (both sides) going back generations, I’ve been inculcated to be critical of this culture. My family ethos has never been supportive of the military dominance and deathly operations that is its ethos, domestically and otherwise.

    As Orthodox, we are called to be patient and loving, to emulate our Savior. In the context of this culture, I find living the life of Christ difficult. Moreover, I believe that had I been brought up in my mother’s Seminole culture, that is, within a wider community of the Seminole people who have a spiritual context for their lives, the lives lived in Orthodoxy would have had a greater impact, than what I see it has in the American culture. An example of this can be seen among the Alaska Native peoples.

    Perhaps it’s just a waiting game for America to grow up. And with time and with the growth of Orthodox Churches, there might be a critical mass effect. But I doubt it. Nevertheless, all is in the hands of our Savior, and in all things, His will be done. I wait for the Lord, not so much for America to grow up.

  16. Shawn Avatar

    -“This reduction of the world to information is a common error of the modern period. The world and data-about-the-world are considered to be the same thing. The reduction of the world to information is the reduction of what it means to be human. And the result is a diminished person.”

    -“Religious believing is allowed a place within the ethos of commerce and consumption – as a form of ideas to be consumed or sold.”

    These two points aptly describe so much of my paradigm as a modern person and evangelical. In truth, I find it sad that I must be “taught” that truly knowing goes beyond mere information transfer. It’s almost as if I knew this better as a child than as an “educated” adult. Unlearning this has been both difficult and refreshing. How many times have I received data about parenting or marriage but still greatly lacked knowing my children and wife? I can know all sorts of facts about the physical world around me without knowing nature.
    This ties to my religious life as I’ve often viewed church as that place you go to get the good information from the educated pastor and teacher. Get the right thoughts about Jesus and you know him better. So much emphasis on thoughts and head knowledge. While I think there is tremendous value to being taught true thoughts about Christ, that’s not the same as knowing him. In fairness, pastors often emphasize the struggle we face in getting the information from our heads to our hearts, but they can only offer suggestions of how to do that. You’re on your own in a way.
    Now I’m introduced to this Orthodox Church that has so much tradition and ritual and sacrament. In all honesty, it seemed bizarre, outdated and like it was missing the point of “knowing” Christ when I was first exposed. Little did I know that what seemed strange to me were the additional means being utilized to help people more fully know Christ…done as part of a tradition…to “get it into the heart”. I’m still learning to wrap my brain around this, but think it’s so remarkable that ancient practices have much to teach us modern people about knowing. Thank you for sharing them so freely!

  17. Ook Avatar

    When you spoke about the classroom, I was reminded of a class in which the professor introduced us to the Great American Novel with a lecture on how Gatsby created a glamorous new persona through his own efforts and self-discipline (and even disowned his family).
    The Prof spoke about how the novel exposes the emptiness of the American concept of self-invention. To general confusion and even anger from the teenagers in the room who thought they were all inventing themselves at that university.

  18. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    American mythology can be used on the Left and the Right (both are largely just flip-sides of the same coin). None of it is particularly Orthodox in its worldview. A difficulty for many converts in the US – is to mistake Orthodox thought for conservatism. It is and it isn’t. It’s conservative on some things (like sexual morality, etc.) but its foundation is quite different than much of American conservative thought. America is a highly politicized culture – such that people aren’t used to thinking in non-political terms and categories. For example, as an Orthodox thinker, I would say that an ontological understanding of the world is to be preferred to a juridical understanding. But, almost no one would have a clue what I was talking about if I said that outside of an Orthodox audience.

    Much of that formed the energy behind my first book – on the Two-Storey Universe – simply trying to introduce some concepts that are essential to Orthodoxy.

    I’ve also spent a fair amount of time reading/studying American religious history. Our politics and our religion (both Left and Right) are inseparable and cannot be understood apart from each other. Orthodoxy, properly, should have no place in that at all. It’s an odd place to live, all in all.

  19. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Apologies for my blithering and the nonsensical third paragraph in my last comment. My main point was to say that there is an ethos within the American culture that makes it highly resistant to whatever Gospel message it might receive from the lives of Orthodox people. Generally, as far as I know, the resistant American ethos arises from modernity and Protestantism.

    As you said, Shawn, Christ says we must become like children to enter the Kingdom of God. Speaking for myself, that is indeed difficult. But when brought low and in tears seeking Christ, the heart becomes softened like that of a child.

    Ook, I, too, drank the cool aid of the concept of self-invention while at university in my youth. Life has a funny way of making such notions and associated activities a ‘house of cards’. Even a slight wind blows it all down.

  20. Simon Avatar

    Every age has been insane in one way or the other. Hasn’t it been? Never in human history has technology existed where a person can stand in the middle of an open and talk to someone on the other side of the planet. The capacity for information transfer has grown exponentially and that is a multiplier problem. The sheer exponential capacity for information flow…can we even really imagine it? When I was a kid in the 80s I had a Commodore 64. That was a personal computer with 64 kb of memory!! Now 40 years later I can access AI that will write computer programs in multiple programming languages for me from my phone! What other nation on Earth has experienced as much change as the US in the first 250 years of its existence? And we change leadership every 4 years.

    There’s a trendiness to speak about the ‘spirit of the times’ as if it is evil. But, if we step back and think about it…is it evil or is it confusion? If nothing ever changes, if everything stays the same, if everyone uniformly believes the same things and uniformly does the same things at the same time, then that will yield a high degree of social stability and cohesion. Most people would be very comfortable with that. We are geared for homeostasis. Anyone who looked to do differently would have a heretical, rebel-without-a-cause, Cool-Hand-Luke-ish feel.

    The world doesn’t look evil or unorthodox at worst it looks confused before our biologically rooted psychology hasn’t evolved for this much change in so short of a period of time. For what it’s worth, that’s my estimation.

  21. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Although I have traveled some and read more, I don’t think it’s possible for most individuals to step more than a toe or so outside their culture (which is, of course, the thrust of Father Stephen’s post). The constraint of a native language is huge: think how much reading left to right, top to bottom shapes our thought. Or similarly, how being in the Northern hemisphere versus the Southern shapes our view of the world.

    While exhibiting what we might call a dominant culture, the US comprises many cultures. For example, I just looked up the percentage of Americans currently who consider themselves Protestant, and it’s down to 48 percent.

    This is all a preface to say, Dee, that I think whatever is highly resistant to Orthodoxy in the US is likely not all pervasive in–nor unique to–the US. A common characteristic that tends to be resistant to the Gospel from the scriptures and history (it seems to me) is wealth and success. As the US has been a wealthy and successful country, that has probably contributed to making it a less fertile place, particularly post WWII.

    The problems we shorthand with “modernity,” however, have as likely seeped in here from Europe as much as the other way around. America did not, for example, create the Enlightenment.

    Having been reading Father Schmemann a lot lately, I would rather look at it from the direction of his “what can Orthodoxy offer?” The reason that the wealthy and successful can be resistant, in fact, is the temporary satisfaction their position may give them. America may have not yet grown up, and Europe may have grown up too much. Even so, perhaps people worldwide are waking up to the emptiness that remains even with all the material goods that modernity promises. Orthodoxy offers in place of trashy costume jewelry the pearl of great price.

    That does not mean Orthodoxy will necessarily experience a sudden American embrace (“a critical mass moment” as you put it), only that the ground may be more fertile and more hearts more receptive.

  22. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    You make good points about wealth and success.
    I’m only adding more to that list of vulnerabilities.

  23. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I fear being verbose but will continue. I do not share the same histories as most commentators here. And sometimes, I believe I’m understood in a vein or context in which I am not situated.

    If you believe that what I wrote previously was intended as some rebuttal or dispute with what Father Stephen has said in his article, that is certainly not my intention. As I re-read my words, I still do not see what you might see regarding my thoughts on cultural inculcation as a form of disagreement with what he has written. Perhaps it’s just my clumsy writing.

    A person who responds to Christ’s calling specifically to Orthodoxy does so within what they have received or traditioned within the ethos of their culture. For example, I refer to what Father Stephen has written about Paul:

    And the context of St. Paul’s conversion is already the same ethos shared by the disciples – Judaism. The new ethos into which he is baptized is a refinement and fulfillment of what he already knows.

    I point to modernity and Protestantism, and you point to wealth and success making up an ethos that obstructs a calling to the fullness of life in Christ, in Orthodoxy. I don’t see these issues or vulnerabilities that we have named as mutually exclusive, and furthermore, I believe they are closely related.

    The ethos of the culture in America (I emphasize I’m not trying to make a political statement although it may be taken as such) is not the only ethos or culture I know or have lived in. Beyond my childhood inculcation (mother of a different culture) I have lived abroad for a few decades in my early adulthood. From without it is easy to see a dominant culture, the ethos of the American culture that I speak of. It is a very dominant, overriding ethos disabling in its influential capacity all other small cultural differences that may exist in the country, to the point that a child of a small culture within the US wishes so much to be seen and be a part of the dominant culture. Parenting and inculcating such a child to receive the ethos of their parents’ heritage is a tall task. Therefore in the US, we see islands of such small cultures doing their best to stay together to keep their cultural heritages intact. Protestant groups may do this, too. However, I believe they have more in common with the dominant ethos than the ‘small cultures’ I refer to.

    Father Stephen writes this:
    “Modern persons are formed in an ethos that is often alien to the gospel – and it is an ethos that destroys the soul. Loneliness, compulsion, and bondage to the passions through the materialist culture of consumerism leave us hungry – but ill-prepared for spiritual food. Salvation (understood in the fullest sense of the word) requires spiritual formation. We must learn and be formed by the Tradition of the Spirit in the ethos of Christ’s self-sacrificing way of life.”

    I respond and point to the US, where I now live (not isolating the US in this regard as if I have some political point vs Europe). Indeed, Enlightenment might have been started elsewhere, but I see and have to live in the wholesale embodiment of it right here.

    The cultural ethos of Protestantism and modernity have flourished here in the US. And perhaps you would disagree, but I perceive that the dominant ethos of the US is still that. I have expressed my doubts that the presence of Orthodox Churches can significantly influence that ethos because it isn’t just a matter of choosing to become Orthodox as if it is another denomination within the same culture. A change in ethos is needed, wrought by the Holy Spirit.

    How will the Lord prepare this culture to relinquish its hold on death? How will the Lord nurture this culture to become what it now is not? How will the ethos that is within the Orthodox Church, the life of Christ, spread to the culture outside it? To the best of my understanding, it will be only to the extent that we truly live the life of Christ to the fullest extent the Holy Spirit gives us. I pray that what comes to us in this culture in the US will be what we need for our salvation. But I fear what might be needed (or might happen) will be a terrible upheaval.

    In other words, the onus is on us to the extent that we have been truly inculcated into the life of Christ. It is the work of the Holy Spirit within us as Orthodox Christians. I don’t see a potential influence on the ethos of the US in terms of the number of Orthodox Churches. I used the critical mass concept to indicate how ‘progress’ or unexpected change is often measured or described. I do not believe the Holy Spirit works in such a mechanistic manner. Rather, I believe it is its minority status that actually helps maintain the ethos of the Orthodox Church. The Lord shows His strength in our weakness.

    I suppose that by naming Protestantism as the ethos of the US, I probably sound like I’m Protestant bashing. However, I’m speaking of Protestantism as an American cultural ethos. Of course, Protestantism and modernity, wealth, and success exist elsewhere. Again, I’m speaking of the culture I’m familiar with, living and working here in the US now for about 25 years.

    Am I really able to see outside it? I believe I can because I was inculcated in a different culture at an early age. Furthermore, there is more to my life history when I entered young adulthood that I left out, which did more to keep me out of the Protestant ethos that I describe of the US. Please forgive me for keeping that leg of my life private. I’ll say it wasn’t New Ageism, Asian religions/cultures, atheism, or scientism. But it was another cultural and religious ethos. Interestingly, through Providence, that life experience prepared my heart and soul to be inculcated into the traditions of the Orthodox Church.

    The Lord provides what is needed for an open heart, whether or not the soul knows she searches for Him.

  24. Matthew Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Is the photo of the baby being baptized copyright protected?

  25. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Hi Dee,

    I did not mean to imply you had disagreed with or were rebutting Father Stephen. I mentioned him only because as I wrote the first line of my comment I realized it was basically saying the same thing he’d already said. What I was trying to say, however, was personal in that–as much as I might try or even think sometimes I succeed at a different perspective–I am a thread woven into and captive of my cultural fabric. And everyone else is of their own. When I try to understand a culture more influenced by Orthodoxy (for example, the Russian), I will always do so as a foreigner. As a thread, I have a certain perspective and integration on my “home” the outsider does not, but conversely, they have the “distant” perspective.

    Hence, I enjoy the exchange of views (don’t every worry that you’re being verbose as far as I’m concerned!) because communication is the only way threads can learn about one another’s perspectives. And of course it’s helpful to remember always that the fabric itself exists only as a composition of the threads–the particulars we talk about so often on this blog.

    In talking with Matthew I mentioned that the Old Testament and that its codes were more tribal (familial) in practice. This, to me, is part of the message of Orthodoxy–that we are to view one another within the communion of the Church, rather than within whatever culture we happened to be born. It helps us transcend our separation and act like the Good Samaritan, regardless of which neighbor we find in a ditch.

    (Personally, I do not think that means we give up all sense of our individual culture, as each of us practices our faith and feels it in our heart a little differently. I always feel reluctance to speak of what God thinks as though I know, but I do not feel God loves me any more simply because I am American.)

  26. Matthew Avatar

    I just received “The Melody of Faith” by Vigen Guroian. Looking forward to it.

  27. Matthew Avatar

    Hi Mark,

    I used to think I was captive to my cultural perspective or “thread”, but I have lived outside the U.S. for almost 20 years and have learned that the longer one lives in another culture, the easier it is to become a new and different “thread”. That said, there are things about me that I cannot change and that will forever stay with me wherever I may live globally (like my working class N.J. roots and love for Bruce Springsteen!). I am also, though, aware that I am a brand new person unlike the person I was when I left the U.S. all those years ago. I don´t completely fit in the culture I now inhabit, but I also don´t fit in American culture anymore either. I think it´s my faith in Jesus Christ and his Church that helps me to navigate this difficult path I am on. As you seem to be saying, our faith transcends ethic and nationalistic dividing lines. I am happy about that. Thank you.

  28. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I could not track down a copyright on it…but I didn’t get it from my free source. It was from a Russian Orthodox website.

  29. Simon Avatar

    To a large extent, things are what they are. Good or bad is a judgment we make from some perspective we have. Generally speaking confusion and ignorance are maladies of people abandoned to their freedom. What serves for our salvation?Everything. All things work for good, i.e. our salvation. In my very useless opinion, I find comfort in my present circumstances. They are so critical that I have’t the energy to be concerned with it. I never thought that I would think that having much less than what you would need would be a comfort, but there’s a simplification in it. It naturally imposes a hierarchy of needs.

    Modernism, postmodernism, name-a-favorite-ism are only problems when you have plenty. When you have the luxury of time. Otherwise you think to yourself, ‘What am I going to do for my kid?’

  30. Matthew Avatar

    Do you think it would be a problem to use the photo as the front of a homemade greeting/holiday card? My wife simply loves it.

  31. Eliza Avatar


    You just put the pressure on me to read the Guroian book! This is good, since I have it and it’s been on my too read for a couple of years.

  32. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock


    Yes…in my earlier comment to Dee I said “most” can step “only a toe” outside their own culture. I’ve had the fortune of being able to travel some and being an avid reader my entire life. So I at least am aware that not everyone is waiting to be turned into an American and that we aren’t (and never have been) the best at everything 🙂

    Some people do sort of adapt to a new culture, and to be sure an American could likely adapt to Germany more easily than others. (Curiously enough, I was listening to a lecture on Goethe the other day and some of the modernist ideas we have been associating with the United States in this discussion the lecturer talked about as being new when expressed in Goethe’s writing. Example: That the essential quality of being human is always to be seeking new and varied experiences.)

    Father Schmemann himself would be an example of a person who transcended his culture in that he was a Russian born in Estonia, educated in France, and lived the last half of his life in the United States.

    My main point is as you say (when we see in faith we see past ethnicity and nationalism).

    Thank you for expressing it succinctly 🙂

  33. Matthew Avatar

    It would be great if you began reading it to Eliza. I just began reading the chapter on creation. Very good. It inspired me to listen to Haydn´s Creation. Such a brilliant composition!

  34. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Not sure.

  35. Matthew Avatar

    OK, Fr. Stephen. Thanks.

  36. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Yep. Just living, do the best we can. It is, nevertheless, the case that we use some sort of model to think about whatever we think about, and that creates some variety – some problems and some solutions.

  37. Eliza Avatar

    Dee and Mark, you two have an interesting dialogue going and I see the points both of you make.

    To the point Dee makes about smaller cultures within the dominant culture in the U.S., I will say that I can clearly see something of this dynamic in the Latino cultures within my area, or even the broader U.S.

    I don’t want to stereotype, there are exceptions, to be sure. I don’t mean to oversimplify or to somehow dilute Dee’s point. If it comes across that way, forgive me. Her point brings this to my mind, that’s all.

    So, here goes my stereotype that isn’t meant to be that. My daughter has a number of Latino music students and even colleagues. We have noticed that, often, the Hispanics, Latinos, or whichever term one prefers, are generally very polite and respectful. The children are good students and close knit with their families. This is the standard, with some exceptions.

    It is such a standardized thing here that when she hears that she is getting a new student she can be almost assured that will be a good student. In the case of everyone else, it’s not as high a chance of being true. Though she is very lucky to have many good students and parents, thank heavens.

    We sometimes talk about hoping these people don’t become overly Americanized.

    Just an anecdote, fwiw.

  38. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Mark!

    Ah Goethe … the hero of the German intelligentsia. I think the Enlightenment did everything it could to be some sort of Christianity; somekind of moral enterprise; some kind of epic humanity — without the guidance and Spirit of the Church.

    This doesn´t seem to have been a problem in the east. Maybe the Orthodox should be thankful for that. 🙂

  39. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Orthodoxy had to struggle to resist the Enlightenment. I heard an interesting series of lectures by an Orthodox scholar on the topic, recently. Orthodoxy was under terrible oppression at that time – from the Ottoman Empire in many places – and with an ascendant “German-idealization” in the Russian sphere at the time. The West was strongly seeking to export Enlightenment ideas into the Orthodox world and saw the Church as an obstacle.

    In the Greek Orthodox world, particularly centered on Mt. Athos, there was a movement that resisted all of this. Broadly speaking, it is described as Hesychasm, an understanding centered in the Liturgical and spiritual traditions of the faith, particularly as represented in the writings known as the Philokalia. Indeed, that collection of writings was assembled as part of that movement. It was slow to gather strength on Mt. Athos (complicated reasons), but spread very successfully in the Slavic regions through the work of St. Paisios Velichkovsky, who translated the Philokalia into Slavic language. It consciously centered spiritual understanding in the practice of the Jesus Prayer and in the Liturgical tradition. Essentially – it opposed the use of Enlightenment-style reason as the basis of life and belief. It’s a long, complicated story, but that view prevailed and permeates the whole of the Orthodox world today. It was, I think, one of the most successful “dodge-the-bullet” moves Orthodoxy ever made.

    I think that today – there is a greater understanding of the limits of Enlightenment-style reason. It is reductionistic and yields a very distorted version of what it means to be human. Orthodox resistance to all of that is not accidental.

  40. Matthew Avatar

    Oh yes Mark …

    America is really enigmatic in that it is a cultural mosaic and melting pot, but at the same time there seems to be this overarching “American Dream” narrative that waters down its ethnic cultures and their uniqueness.

  41. Simon Avatar

    When you say “Holy Spirit itself as the Tradition” that “as” is a critical point. Is it saying that the Holy Spirit vivifies the Tradition such that the Tradition is ‘alive and active’ or that the Holy Spirit works within the scope of the Tradition or that the Tradition itself is the creation of the Holy Spirit or all three?

  42. Matthew Avatar

    Thanks Fr. Stephen.

    Even the Enlightenment thinkers were evangelists!

    What does it mean to be human?

  43. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I can’t see where I wrote “Holy Spirit itself as the Tradition,” but I’ll own it anyway. But, in saying that, it also means that what constitutes Tradition has to be discerned. It is not simply reduced to a rational process. We can, for example, look at the practice of the Church over time regarding something specific, but still have to ask, “What, in this, is the Tradition?” And that is a living, abiding consensus in the life of the Church.

    That which is “handed down” is not merely “this is how we do things.” What is handed down is the Holy Spirit – it is given as the Life of the Church – the sacraments are a particular aspect of this. But it’s living – and has to be lived into. When we say, “living,” I do not mean some sort of word-trick in which “living” means “changing” (so it’s sometimes just a rhetorical trick of a liberal agenda). God does not change.

    An interesting example would be found in translating the services of the Church into a new language. All translations are “equivalents.” So, a question could be asked, “Does this new language preserve the Tradition intact?”

    But, to your question: more or less all three.

  44. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    The answer on what it means to be human is answered in Christ who is the only truly existing, fully human being. The rest of us need to be healed to some degree.

  45. Holly Avatar

    “Modern persons are formed in an ethos that is often alien to the gospel – and it is an ethos that destroys the soul.”

    I think part of that ethos, is the desire to fix or explain things. I’ve spent way too much time pointing to my Protestant upbringing or the Western culture and Enlightenment as the “source” of my/the world problems. While it can sometimes seem interesting, it is an endless loop, and doesn’t really bring me peace.

    When I am able to take a step back, it seems that “start of the problem” and thus the only way to “fix” it is to go back to the beginning. That has led me back to the story of Adam and Eve.

    I don’t know if this is proper Orthodox theology, but I’ve been contemplating the idea that the original sin is believing what I have been calling the original lie. That lie, led to the belief that God has abandoned us, or is not a loving God, and so we need to seek out answers to all these complex problems on our own.

    Here I am, still trying to explain things, but it is a process. I can say that relying on the goodness of God, whether I understand His workings or not, does bring me peace.

  46. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Attempting to shed an ethos of which I speak, that is, to become Orthodox, is the work of the Holy Spirit and of a heart willing to be emptied. If one takes the approach they are trying to fix themselves, that, in my opinion, would indeed end up a fruitless loop.

    Father Stephen has said, come to Liturgy and be prepared to become bored. If one follows his advice sincerely, the rest is the work of the Holy Spirit. Just being there is the beginning. As Father Stephen mentions, changing the heart’s orientation to Christ, in right worship, is the work of the Holy Spirit on the heart. It takes time, more time than what we think it ought to take sometimes. Patience and the love of Christ are enough to bridge the waiting gap.

  47. Matthew Avatar

    Nice Holly ….

  48. Simon Avatar

    Fr. Stephen, it’s in the post…🙂

  49. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I feel foolish…of course it is.

  50. Holly Avatar

    Dee — Thank you, for your encouragement. I am attending an Orthodox Church and try to make all the services. While it has been challenging at times (and no doubt will be again), I cannot express how relieved I am.

    I think I was trying to express how freeing it is to shed that “modern ethos”, or at least to take a step.

  51. Laura Wilson Avatar
    Laura Wilson

    Fr Stephen, if Orthodox women today are drawn to our history of women in the diaconate, women who have also been shaped within the liturgical tradition of the church – it might be oversimplistic to say their reasons are rooted in feminism. Our task is to parse out what part of that history is tradition, that is to say, what the Holy Spirit revealed to us about God in our common life through that office. When we speak clearly about that tradition, then we can separate our interpretation of that history from the feminist influences that inevitably also creep in. I’m wary of those who want to throw out the tradition all together!

  52. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Tradition, real Tradition, has a flexibility and life to it that rigid rules and/or ideology has. It is a community based. Unfortunately, as our sense of community suffers from modern suppositions that are departures from truth about what being human is.

  53. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I appreciate that. I once had a conversation about this with my late Archbishop. He said, “Sometimes things disappear for a reason.” Forgive me, but we live in a point of time where conversations about male and female are quite difficult, and it is hard to trust that anyone is actually trying to discern anything. I have soul-wounds from my years as an Episcopalian. Along with women’s ordination (to the priesthood) came a host of errors that simply swept away the sanity of most who were involved. It followed on the heals of a women’s diaconate that was argued for in the very same terms I hear at present. I hear very little of anything other than the reasoning of modernity’s take on male and female that presses on this agenda.

    It is of interest, that there will likely come some form of a diaconate with women in Africa – due to the necessities of many of its traditional cultures. In our modern cultures, we tend to think that male and female are ontologically insignificant, something I think is a grave error. No doubt, the conversatations will continue.

    I think it’s probably a mistake that we speak of a “male priesthood,” or a “female diaconate,” and such. Only a very tiny minority of men are ordained to the priesthood. It’s not a “male” role, but an “only a few men” priesthood. The notion of a “representational” gender role is, I think, quite mistaken – but typical of modernity’s notions of almost everything.

    I will add, though, that it is inevitable that the topic be understood and addressed – just as the modern world has to be understood and addressed. None of that is easy.

  54. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    When we say that God does not change, sometimes I feel we are talking about ontological stasis. I wonder if what we really mean is that the relation of love between the Persons of the Trinity does not change, that relation – or divine communion – in which we share by virtue of our creaturehood.

    That communion of love never dies and is always given freely, utterly unconditioned by either our sin or our righteousness. This kind of “immutability” looks less like stasis and more like the creative dynamism of active love. And it can be imitated, lived.

    Perhaps the unchangeable nature of Tradition is based on (and profoundly shaped, if not defined, by) the dynamic flow of love within God’s own life and not a static set of unchanging data. Does this match up with what you’ve written, Father?

  55. Matthew Avatar

    Can someone explain how Tradition in the Orthodox Church works? I really don´t get it.

  56. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I do not mean “unchanging data” when speaking of Tradition. However, I’m wary of saying too much about God not changing. We know nothing of His essence – and I’ll leave it at that. Nevertheless, the God whom we worship is one and the same God always. The abiding concern within Tradition is that the Church have one and the same life as was given us in the beginning and abides with us for all time. It is not a development nor an evolution. What has been given to us was and is given as a fullness.

  57. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    I’m not sure how to answer that question – as in – I’m not really sure what you’re asking. I suspect that if I reduced things to “this is how it works,” it would be utterly insufficient.

    A difficulty is that Tradition (“that which has been handed down”) describes, first and foremost, the inner life of the Church. It is reflected in a continuity of faith and practice – but not just a dead repetition. I suggest letting your questions on this rest a bit and give it time.

  58. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    An interesting thought here by Olivier Clement to add to the conversation:

    “Tradition is not a written text with which we can choose to agree or disagree; it is not material suitable for dissection by scholars. It is the expression of the Spirit juvenescens, as Irenaeus of Lyons says, ‘in its youthfulness.’ It is of course our foundation history, but it is also a living force, a tremendous ‘passover,’ a passing over from the God-man to God-humanity and to the universe…”

    From his marvelous book, The Roots of Christian Mysticism.

  59. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    That book is an absolute treasure!

  60. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Father, it’s a bit of a side note, but still to do with the Tradition: I had a question about today’s Kontakion to the Three Holy Youths:

    “You did not worship the graven image, O thrice-blessed ones, but armed with the immaterial Essence of God, you were glorified in a trial by fire.”

    What you said above about the essence of God being unknowable (and nonparticible) is clearly patristic and seems to be traditionally Orthodox. So why do we sing this, assuming it’s an accurate translation? If it’s not a good translation, how did it get approval for use in the churches?

    Just wondering.

  61. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Not sure about the translation – but I doubt it is a reference to the “essence” in the more careful theological sense. Actually, there’s lots of tricky translation problems in Orthodox English. Things that say “worship” when it would be more accurate to say “veneration” for example. So, I’d mark it down as “hmmm?”

    Also, “approval for use in the Churches,” presumes a much tighter control on things than is actually the case. Many times we have had translations done by non-native English speakers whose grasp of the subtleties was not so sharp. Heck, when I first converted and was ordained as a priest, a fair amount of my liturgical material was “samizdat” (privately produced and copied – as in mimeographed). The wonderful online resources that are available today were non existent. It’s a massive amount of material – and not carefully perused and checked by highly trained translators/theologians. We just get by (we’re also poverty stricken – and that’s a fact). The OCA (the primary American-English speaking jurisdiction) has only officially been using English since the 1970’s.

    We’re always imagining deep pockets and bureaucratic resources on a level of American denominations. It’s nothing like that – at all.

    I once “inherited” a “sluzhebnik” (service book), that was hand written in Slavonic, by a Russian priest in the camps. Welcome to the original Church…complete with original poverty…and still learning English.

  62. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I can’t help loving the stories and history you tell about our various service ‘manuals’. I have a few prayer books. Most have the same prayers but slightly different translations. I use the translation closest to my heart. But I cannot say categorically what that would be in character.

  63. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    “You did not worship a man-made image, O thrice-blessed youths. You armed yourselves with uncreated divinity. You were glorified in the trial by fire. Withstanding the flames, you stood and called out: Hasten, O compassionate God, and hurry to help us in Your mercy. For You can do whatever You will.”

    The above is another translation I found online. If the fourth figure in the furnace is considered a Christophany, might the phrase be referring to that? “Uncreated divinity” certainly would, and “immaterial Essence of God” would in the sense that a Christophany (as I understand the concept) is preincarnate.

    By this I mean only that it is possibly what the writer of the Kontakion intended to describe, not necessarily that the writer’s theology was infallible.

  64. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thanks. I like that possibility. Guess we can’t know for sure, and I kind of like it that way. 🙂 But what you and Father say makes good sense.

  65. Hélène d. Avatar
    Hélène d.

    This part of the kondakion in French, which exists in the main prayer books :
    ….”but were strengthened by the ineffable presence of God”….

    Thank you for the quote from Oliver Clément, it is indeed a remarkable book….

  66. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Thank you, Hélène. I agree about the book. It’s one of my favorites. Clément always seems fresh to me. I almost learned French just to study him in the original!

  67. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    “ineffable essence” would, of course, be acceptable. It is simply a circumlocution to refer to the presence of God. I cannot find the Greek original. Sometimes, in writing the original hymns, there are poetic requirements (in Greek, they need to “scan”) that will see various phrases employed because they fit the poetic scansion.

    Frequently, when I attend a well-chanted Greek Orthodox service, you can hear the “pulse” of the poetic meter as the chanters sing. This is not the case in Slavonic services, nor in English (which follows the Slavonic pattern, for the most part).

  68. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    In the Matins service for Sunday (in Greek), one of the hymns has the phrase: ἀλλʼ ἀγράφῳ οὐσίᾳ θωρακισθέντες (“putting on the armor of the unwritten essence”) which is made to contrast with the idol of the wicked King. So, in that place, “ousia” is used – again, as a way of speaking of God Himself. It is not the object of understanding, or of contemplation, but the armor that repels all attacks.

  69. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    I learned something today thanks to your description of the Greek scan. As I have been learning Greek on my own, I’ve noticed the pulse you speak of when I say the prayers. But wasn’t aware that this construction had a name. It is indeed beautiful.

  70. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Fascinating explanation, Father, thank you. Especially about the metrics of Greek poetry. What a rich mode of conveying truth. I used to be enamored by systematic theology. Although I still think there’s value (for me) in the analytic approach, nothing really compares to the Orthodox ethos in terms of inculturating human beings to see Tradition’s “inner life.” It offers an holistic initiation.

    I’ve spent the last 12 years in formal education, all at Southern Baptist schools. The difference in ethos is dramatic. Not to mention the difference in financial capabilities. The SBC is the largest Christian denomination in the US, whereas – to my understanding – some Orthodox clergy in Alaska are paid in fish. I have dear friends in the SBC, so I am not demonizing anyone. But it is definitely an whole other world. Thanks again for your insight into this.

  71. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    Owen, et al
    It’s worth noting that many of the great theologians of Orthodoxy were also hymn writers/poets. St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John of Damascus, Ephrem the Syrian, Isaac of Syria, and on and on. And, when we think of Greek poetry, we should not think of reading stuff out loud – it’s meant to be sung. There were counterparts to this in the West, once upon a time, but it mostly disappeared. The West, for example, developed the practice of a “said liturgy” – the so-called “low Mass.” There is no such thing in the East. All services are sung – even the smallest or most simple.

  72. Nikolaos Avatar

    We can always use the Orthodox iconography to understand our faith.

    The three youths are depicted in the furnace under the wings of an Angel (probably Archangel Michael). The indescribable “essence” is probably a reference, not to the essence of God, but to the nature of their protection. I have also seen a translation “indescribable energy of God”.

    The three youths are the protectors of the fire fighters in Greece.

  73. Fr. Stephen Avatar

    In most the icons of the Three Youths that I’ve seen, the Angel has in his nimbus (halo), the Cross and the Inscription “Ho On” – indicating it is Christ rather than St. Michael. But, of course, there are those who depict the angel without the inscription.

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It seems an oxymoron to some that each of us can only become human to the extent we seek and accept Jesus’ mercy. That makes repentance essential.

  75. Owen Kelly Avatar
    Owen Kelly

    Yes, oxymoronic, as the disciples perceived the Lord’s teachings to be. Especially the foretelling of his death and resurrection. Many still don’t see it, but it’s the universal pattern. Only by changing our mind through death (at the cross) can we find our life, birth from above, as a truly human being. The disciples mainly missed it, but Mary “let it be..” They were barren; Mary “repented” and gave birth to God. Glory to Jesus Christ.

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