“I belong to a small country,” said the great Greek poet George Seferis in his Nobel Prize winning speech in 1963. “It is small, but its tradition is immense.”
As wrangling over the word “tradition” has become an idle pastime, particularly on that domain of debauchery known as social media, Seferis’s thoughts warrant consideration, despite his unorthodox Orthodoxy. Tradition, for Seferis, has three elements: it is alive; it is universal, but only because it is particular; and it is, above all, liberating.
Introduced to the West in Henry Miller’s 1939 travelogue The Colossus of Maroussi, the poet and diplomat (whose real name was Giorgos Seferiades) was larger than life. Miller described him as “a wild boar which had broken its tusks in furious onslaughts born of love and ecstasy.” When Orthodox lay theologian Philip Sherrard first met Seferis in person, he wrote in his diary that he radiated “profoundly direct and simple human warmth and spontaneity.” The British poet and Jesuit priest Peter Levi wrote that Seferis “was the sun in the sky to all of us who lived in Greece.”
Tradition is the central problematic of modern Orthodox theology. We are a Church that takes tradition seriously. Where disagreements arise these tend to revolve around questions of fidelity to tradition. What does it mean to be faithful to the tradition of the Church? Just how free may we be with relation to the tradition of the Church? I suggest that there are two main errors to avoid when tackling this controverted question – rigorism and relativism. Tradition, I argue, should be embraced in its totality and not selectively discarded or selectively defended.
Tradition is as much a verb as a noun, denoting the process of transmission (or handing over) as much as that which is handed over. Tradition is the mode in which the whole experience of the Church is handed over in lived history. It is the living continuum of faith comprising scripture, the achievements of the Fathers and the councils, sacraments and liturgy, iconography and canons, feasts and fasts, theology and prayer, and much more. Ultimately, it is a way of life – the life in Christ. But how do we discern what constitutes properly traditional theology? The road to such discernment, I suggest, lies between rigorism and relativism. Continue Reading…