preservation or progress? // The observer
I often find myself thinking about how we categorize ourselves in society. Generally speaking, we tend to identify with one of two groups: conservatives – people who want to keep things as they are – and progressives – people who want change. Progressivism and conservatism are competing worldviews for us when it comes to politics, culture, aesthetics, morals, etc., and we believe that we have to choose sides in the conflict. Anyone who loves tradition surely cannot be interested in progress, and anyone who seeks progress absolutely cannot respect tradition, the company tells us. But what if I admire certain customs and traditions and respect certain aspects of history, while supporting particular calls for change and the social inclusion towards which society is evolving? Where am I going? What team am I on?
The tension between progress and tradition has been particularly personal for me as I work to make sense of my identities both as an Orthodox Christian and as a modern woman. The Eastern Orthodox Church is known for its traditional atmosphere and conservative character, retaining ancient teachings, rituals, language and art. In fact, he has actively strived to preserve the teachings and practices of the Church in their original form since the beginning of the Christian Church. This is why it is called “Orthodox”. How can I be part of both this microcosm of conservation and contemporary society in general?
The world often tries to paint progress and tradition as obstacles to the existence of the other, the ultimate struggle being for one to overtake the other. On Thursday, however, His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to the campus reminded me of what I have always known deep down to be true but have sometimes made me doubt: that support for progress and tradition are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an all-or-nothing game where we have to stand on one side of the line or the other, and we have to ignore anyone who tells us otherwise.
What I saw in Patriarch Bartholomew was the potential for an embodiment of a simultaneous commitment to preservation and progress. A native of the ancient city of Constantinople, an 81-year-old bearer of wisdom and draped in the customary black garb, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians has proven to be remarkably in touch with the challenges of the present day. On his receiving an honorary degree in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Patriarch identified the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change as the two most urgent crises of our time. Seeing the spiritual leader of this Church show such a solid understanding of the modern challenges facing the world and a resolution to meet them was reassuring and refreshing.
So what is Patriarch Bartholomew – progressive or traditional? Has he turned his back on tradition by showing communion with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church despite a thousand-year gap between the Eastern and Western Churches? Or by taking modern scientific evidence seriously and calling on people to act to tackle the modern problems of the pandemic and climate change? Did he flee modernity by defending the institutions and customs of the Church which have been largely preserved intact since the days of the early Church? Or could it, perhaps, be that the choice between these first two options was wrong – that he didn’t choose tradition over progress or vice versa, and neither did we? I dispute the latter.
Religion can sometimes get a bad rap for being anti-scientific, exclusive, or stuck in the past. Over the years, however, and culminating with the Patriarch’s visit last Thursday, the Orthodox Christian faith has shown me the feasibility and beauty of embracing the richness of two thousand years of tradition while understanding the needs of the era – that we can maintain historical roots while being compatible with modern science, inclusive and forward-looking. As His All Holiness reminded us: “Religion must function and serve in relation to science and never independently of it. Faith alone will not overcome the problems of our time, but the challenges of our time will certainly not be overcome without faith. So the struggle is not to choose between faith and science or tradition and progress but rather to merge them, to recognize that they are especially powerful when we allow them to complement each other.
The Orthodox Church finds itself in a special situation insofar as, with its conservative customs and its ancient art and language, it is dressed in the clothes of tradition without, however, being completely constrained by it. He works diligently to preserve the Christian faith through time, but is also time sensitive and does not shut off from the modern world. Its exterior is ancient, but its core is timeless, relevant, and relevant to any period or point in history.
We can sometimes fall into the trap of seeing the Church as a brake on progress. We tend to think that when we value religious traditions and practices, we do so at the expense of promoting change in the world. However, Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit reminds us that this is a myth; the Church, on the contrary, allows us and really obliges us to respond to the situations of the time. Supporting progressive practices and policies is not my own optimistic take on Church teachings, either. Patriarch Bartholomew himself explicitly winked at progress, citing the need to transform our world: “This larger worldview is what enables us to imagine a world different from the one we have created or created. to which we have become accustomed. It is the belief that something that has not yet happened can actually happen with the cooperation of all and the synergy of God.
In the unique figure of the Ecumenical Patriarch, we have seen the marriage of commitment to both progress and tradition through his advocacy for climate justice and for a forceful response to the coronavirus.
In his last call to action, the Patriarch encouraged us: “It is you, students, who offer us the optimism to which we aspire so much. The willingness to embrace change and sacrifice, the ability to overcome polarization and partisanship, the belief to be catalysts for social and ecological justice, as well as, quite frankly, the opportunity to save democracy and our planet.
We young people are particularly compelled to see progress and tradition as distinct and incompatible categories. We are often made to think that religion, customs and tradition are for the older generations, while secularism, modernity and progress are for us. However, the Patriarch filled this gap with his campus presence and the above message. So, whenever we wonder about the place that tradition can have in modern times, we only have to look at the example of His All Holiness Bartholomew – the representative of the Orthodox Church, who is characterized by conservation – calling for a transformation of the world.
Former resident of Lyons Hall, Eva Analitis has a degree in political science and pre-health. Although she often can’t make up her own mind, that won’t stop her from trying to change yours. She can be reached at [email protected] or @evaanalitis on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.