Our experience of living in North America today is very different than was the experience of living in Byzantium in the fifth century, or in Holy Russia in the nineteenth century—or even in post-Soviet Russia now in the twenty-first century. Every culture is different, and these differences profoundly impact on the life of the Church and its mission to those around it. These differences create challenges for us, because although the Christ and His Gospel will never change, the culture around us always changes. Our perennial task therefore is how to remain faithful to the Gospel in our ever-changing culture.
Some voices would suggest that faithfulness to the Gospel involves not simply confronting our ever-changing culture in a dialogue, but in fact being open to learn from our culture and accept its dominant values as our own. Those who suggest this course of action usually confuse and in fact identify dialogue with our culture with capitulation to it, promoting this capitulation under the heading of dialogue. “Capitulation” is an ugly word, but “dialogue” is a nice one. Everyone wants to be open to dialogue with our culture—how else can we preach the Gospel if we do not engage those around us? How can we reach those in our surrounding culture if we do not speak their language? Dialogue is good. Refusing the path of dialogue is thus denounced as narrow-minded fundamentalism, as a failure to allow the heart and mind to expand, a failure to repent and be open to the way of Christ. Christ wants us to repent, to change—surely then we should be humble enough to learn from our society in a dynamic process with our surroundings and be open to change? If we refuse, we risk being bound to the past, making former signposts into idols.
This approach is not new. In the ‘60s voices were raised telling us (in the words of a 1968 World Council of Churches slogan) “the World sets the agenda for the Church”, and movements such as the Women’s Movement were proclaimed as the work of the Spirit, a sign of the times calling the Church to follow it into new fields of faithfulness to God’s Spirit. In our day, new voices are similarly raised in the same cry—this time talking not about the ordination of women, but gay and transgender “rights” and the acceptance of the homosexual cultural agenda.
An old Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times”, but in fact all times are equally interesting to the Christian, because in every time we still live in a world which lies under the power of the Evil One (1 John 5:19). Regardless of the secular culture surrounding us, the Christian still walks through a world whose god blinds the minds of the unbelieving (2 Corinthians 4:4), so that the Christian’s perennial and timeless task is to be in the world, but not of it. That is, until the Lord returns we will always live in tension with parts of the culture in which we find ourselves, and we must resist its impact upon us or we will become salt that has lost its savour. That is not a fate to be envied; the Lord denounced it as good for nothing, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men (Matthew 5:13).
Resisting the harmful parts of the culture around us, however, requires discernment. It will not do to say, “The world is bad and so I am going to leave it”, making a fundamentalist retreat to some survivalist bomb shelter in the Arizona desert, or a monastery on Athos, or a small Amish town in Ohio. Most of have to stay where we are and bloom where we’ve been planted. That means that the Church must examine the secular culture around it and differentiate which parts of it are good and compatible with the Gospel, and which parts of it are bad and sinfully incompatible. Satan, being a great salesman (or, to use St. Paul’s image, able to disguise himself as an angel of light; 2 Corinthians 11:14), is always hard at work to make this process of discernment a difficult one, since in our culture bad sinful things are presented as good wholesome things. How then can we distinguish the truly wholesome from the only apparently wholesome? The poisonous things in our medicine cabinets are labelled as poisonous, but not the poisonous things in our culture. There some things are poisonous that have been convincingly labelled as good medicine. What then can we do? In the case our current cultural controversy, how can we decide whether or not acceptance of the homosexual agenda represents openness to the Spirit or capitulation to the spirit of the age? Are we left entirely at the mercy of our own little wisdoms, or (God save us) the pronouncements of sociological “experts”?
Happily, no. In every time and every culture in which we find ourselves, we have a trans-cultural norm to guide us, a plumb-line to hang against our culture to determine if it is straight or crooked. That plumb-line is our Holy Tradition, and it can be accessed through the Scriptures and the Fathers. In other words, by an appeal to our past. Tradition is not an oppressive tyrant (as some suppose it to be), because it liberates us from the more oppressive tyranny of the present fads and fashions. Every age has its own blind spots. Every age thought that its fashions and fads were the latest truths, exciting and liberating discoveries gifted to them from the surrounding culture, deeper insights from the Gospel that previous ages somehow missed. They were wrong, and the passing of time revealed these errors to be—well, erroneous. But to those then living under the tyranny of fashion and the spirit of the age, these errors seemed to be so obviously true. That is why we need something that stands apart from the current zeitgeist—like our Holy Tradition. The Tradition in our past turns out to be the only way to be truly and safely open to the future.
Obviously those still under the tyranny of each age’s zeitgeist will denounce appeal to the past as blind fundamentalism, and as contrary to the deepest truths of the Gospel which our secular age now offers as a gift. It has ever been so. But if we would remain true to Christ and preserve His unchanging Gospel for coming generations, we must firmly resist the siren song of our secular and ever-shifting age, and stand with the Scriptures and the Fathers. This is not fundamentalism, but faithfulness. And it is the only way to preserve the Gospel in interesting times.