Do we still think in our culture today? We are increasingly living in a world where reflection is reduced to superficial slogans and short soundbites, where communication is conducted in a homogeneous echo chamber of my own opinions rather than genuine discourse, where meaning has become the unthinking repetition of platitudes rather than deep engagement with the issues at stake.
This is true both outside the church and, regrettably, within it. Yet, in the current climate we cannot afford simply to parrot spiritual platitudes, to feed our children facile and simplistic versions of the faith, to remain theologically at the level of kindergarten conversation. If Orthodoxy is to be a vibrant tradition today, if its faith is to make sense to and in a postmodern culture, it has to grapple with the contemporary reality in all its complexity.
And it has to do so without simply returning to a premodern worldview, albeit one decorated with modern conveniences and technology. It is not only inconsistent but downright fraudulent to pretend that we can make use of modern medicine, modern modes of transportation and communication, modern means of production and consumption, but theologically and intellectually remain in a romanticized version of the fifth or sixth century.
Such a failure to think silences the tradition. If Orthodoxy is to be a living faith, rather than simply a cherished relic of the past, we must rethink the tradition anew in every generation, in an honest and reflective engagement with the contemporary culture. We owe it to the fathers and to the heritage they left us, to think them anew today in substantive and creative ways rather than merely to mimic their words and gestures.
Many of the patristic authors agree with the ancient philosophical tradition that what makes us human is our capacity for logos—our ability to think in deep and complex ways, to communicate with each other with true listening and empathy, to make meaning of our lives and of the world around us wisely and creatively.
So, how does the Orthodox tradition equip us to confront the contemporary world with all of its challenges squarely and honestly? What are the intellectual resources that will allow us to think clearly, critically, and creatively today?
What does it mean to think the tradition rigorously? It means to think deeply and to the best of our ability, to make use of the best education, scholarship, and intellectual resources for study and contemplation.
Thinking takes time and requires patience. It calls for openness of mind, generosity of spirit, hospitality to ideas. It means to question our presuppositions, to listen to other points of view, to dig deeply below superficial and facile assumptions, to open upon possibilities for transformation.
Thinking asks us to go beyond spouting rote opinions to reasoned argument by sifting the data carefully and dealing with the truth responsibly. It demands both honesty and empathy. Thinking is hard work. It calls for painstaking research and complex organization and continual revision.
The patristic thinkers made use of the best and most rigorous learning of their own day. They appropriated the philosophical, scientific, and medical views of their cultures in order to make a practical difference in their world. They confronted the challenges of poverty, famine, and social devastation their communities faced.
Like them, we must pursue the best scholarship in the natural and social sciences and take the insights of such research seriously when it is well-grounded and cogently argued, rather than maligning or ignoring it. Like them, we must draw on the wisdom of the arts and humanities for cultivating empathy and encouraging creativity, rather than seeing creativity and independent thought as threats to the tradition.
If we believe with St. Maximus that there are traces of the divine logos in all creatures and that the spirit of God breathes through all of creation, then we must pursue scientific research in the most rigorous fashion and cannot stand by when whole species are being eliminated from the face of the earth on a daily basis. If we believe with St. Basil that human suffering and poverty matter, then we have an obligation to confront these issues and to care for those who are vulnerable in our society today, those without sufficient health care, without secure jobs, without proper access to quality education, without valid visas, without hope for the future.
Will we follow the example of the fathers in grappling with the challenges of contemporary culture? Will we overcome divisions and differences in order to talk to each other openly? Will we learn to communicate with those who feel and think differently rather than condemning and vilifying each other? Will we encourage creativity or stultify thought?
Will we follow St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil in welcoming strangers, immigrants, the poor and the ill with generosity, compassion, and hospitality? Will we listen to St. Gregory Nazianzen who exhorts his congregation to embrace lepers—those beyond the very margins of society who most repulse and frighten us?
Will we follow St. Catherine of Alexandria, who—as the stories about her tell us—engaged several hundred philosophers in reasoned dialogue? Or will we follow the Christian mob who massacred the highly esteemed philosopher Hypatia in the same city a few generations later? Do we engage those who think differently in reasoned and open dialogue or do we choose vitriol and defamation as our only modes of discourse?
To cease to think deeply, carefully and rigorously, to refuse to talk to each other or to try to understand others as honestly and hospitably as possible, to give up on making meaning in creative engagement with the culture, is not only to lose the core of our humanity: it means to betray the very soul of the Christian tradition.
Crina Gschwandtner is Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University.