by Very Rev. Dr. Isaac Skidmore
In his 1985 Being as Communion, Metropolitan John Zizioulas described two distinct, yet complementary notions of the Church’s Apostolic identity. The first pertains to the unbroken historical succession of bishops from the time of Christ—in other words the preservation of the Church’s identity through the faithful handing over of what was received in the past, which is what the word tradition (traditio in Latin, or paradosis in Greek) means. The second relates to the way the Apostles serve as an icon of what is yet to come—the ordering of the kingdom of God according to the pattern of the Twelve. From this perspective, the focus is not on the apostles as the historical figures per se, but on the image they convey to us of the ever-approaching eternal kingdom, that suggests itself to us in a variety of particular historical events, in a manner similar to how rough drafts foretell a final manuscript, or a sketch foretells a completed painting. This latter way of the Church identifying her apostolic identity can be called eschatological, in that it pertains to the nature of final things—where it is that all of creation is headed. To the extent Christ’s initial choosing of the apostles partakes of what is most-deeply real, it expresses something of the nature of eternity; thus, it is a reflection of what will become more and more evident as we approach the eschatological horizon, entering into the never-ending day of the kingdom. This perspective makes sense out of why the icon of Pentecost does not constrain itself to accurate historical depiction, including the Apostle Paul (who was not present at the historical event of Pentecost) as the twelfth apostle, rather than Matthias, who, according to Acts 1:16-26, would be historically warranted. The icon is governed by a theological purpose, and subordinates historical details to this end.
An analogy from television cooking shows might help us understand these two perspectives. The first part of the show, in which the chef demonstrates the preparation and mixing of the ingredients, corresponds with the approach in which identity is derived from history. The recipe depends on the initial ingredients, in proper proportion and handled in the proper way. If the ingredients or preparation are incorrect, the item being cooked will not be what it is supposed to be. Often, though, after demonstrating these first steps, the chef will pull out from the oven an example of the recipe that has already been completed. Seeing the completed product gives us a vision of our destiny, and informs and inspires our yielding to the process that brings us to this end. Someone who had never seen a completed cake may follow a recipe and procedure with commendable accuracy, yet produce something that looks quite different from a cake. On the other hand, someone who is familiar with what a cake looks like can, at some point, rely less on the directions for the recipe or procedure and aim their efforts towards what they know the final product is supposed to be.
The way of ensuring the Church’s identity through repetition of the past includes meticulous guarding of its practices, as a way of never forgetting. The instinct in this approach identifies what is essential with what happened at the beginning. The loss of any original element is considered to be a loss of identity. Therefore, remembering and reenactment are rigorously observed, as a kind of ascetic ideal, indicating our fidelity to Christ’s institution of the Church. The way of ensuring the Church’s identity that derives from the eschatological approach, though, is more like one in which we have a vision of where it is all going. We see ourselves as cooperating with a process in which the work of history is, as it were, being poured into the mold the eschatological forms—the forms that represent the wholeness and completion of nature as it is intended in the mind of God, and disclosed to us in Christ. This means that the rigor of historical remembrance—our careful observance of forms and practices from the past— is counterbalanced by the understanding of what they are intended to result in. It means that the asceticism we employ to remain genuinely Orthodox is just as much a matter of relaxation and trust as it is of meticulous observance and practice. At various points, concentration on the instructions we received in the past yields to the inspiration we receive from the images of what is ahead—images of things at their point of fulfillment and completion.
Many disagreements in contemporary Orthodoxy boil down to disputes about the recipe. One side accuses another of neglecting an essential ingredient or practice. These arguments often stem from zeal and piety, but the more their resolution is viewed as the sine qua non of the Church’s purity, the more elusive our actual experience of the Church as pure and whole becomes. We only become more deeply embroiled in rancor and controversy. Simply put, emphasis on the ingredients and the process (the first part of the cooking show), without corresponding emphasis on the final vision (the second part), those images of the eschaton––that future that is not-yet, but is progressively coming into view, and already is, insofar as these images depict and embody the attractor and telos of our evolution towards divinity in Christ—does not sufficiently move us towards our ultimate goal. The images of the end make explicit the pattern intended, in the first place, in the gifting of the original recipe.
On a personal level, I find myself increasingly taking respite in the eschatological vision, and seeing my spiritual effort more and more as an act of cooperation with what is coming into being. This allows me to relax, and to experience the forms and practices of the Church as though they are part of a net that catches me, as I fall, moment by moment, into the future, rather than simply as a round of behaviors I am commanded to endlessly perpetuate. Seen in the former way, they are expressions of the deepest reality that underlies all other layers of reality. Entropy, in this view, is not the disintegration of what was pristine in the past, but the sifting of chaos, and its distribution into the forms into which it it is destined eventually to settle—and settles even now. This approach makes our proclamation of the Church’s truth not so much a statement of right things that people must believe in order to be saved, but an indication of the most elemental trend in all things. We do not invite people to modify their thinking as much as to increase their awareness of the direction they are summoned to by what is deepest in their own nature.
The Very Reverend Dr. Isaac Skidmore is a licensed therapist in Oregon. He is an auxiliary priest at Archangel Gabriel Orthodox Church in Ashland, Oregon.
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.