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The Patriarch: preservation or progress?

| Tuesday, November 2, 2021

I often find myself thinking about how we categorize ourselves within society. Broadly 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 to us when it comes to politics, culture, aesthetics, morals, etc., and we feel we must pick a side in the conflict. Anyone who likes tradition surely can’t be interested in progress, and anyone seeking progress cannot possibly respect tradition, society tells us. But what if I admire certain customs and traditions and respect aspects of history, yet support particular calls for change and the social inclusion to which society is shifting? Where do I go? Which team am I on? 

The tension between progress and tradition has been a particularly personal one for me as I work to make sense of my identities as both an Orthodox Christian and 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, it actively strives to preserve Church teachings and practices in their original form from the beginning of the Christian Church. This is why it is called “Orthodox.” How can I simultaneously be a part of this microcosm of conservation and contemporary society at large? 

The world often tries to paint progress and tradition as obstacles to each other’s existence, the ultimate struggle being for one to overtake the other. Thursday, however, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to campus reminded me of what I have always known deep down to be true but have been made to doubt at times: that support for progress and tradition are not mutually exclusive. It’s not an all-or-nothing game where we must stand on one side of the line or the other, and we ought to disregard 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. Hailing from the ancient city of Constantinople, carrying the wisdom of 81 years and draped in the customary black garb, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians proved to be remarkably in touch with the challenges of the current times. Upon his reception of an honorary degree in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Patriarch identified the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change as the two most pressing crises of our day. To see the spiritual leader of this Church exhibit such a solid understanding of the modern challenges facing the world and a resolution to tackle them was reassuring and refreshing. 

So, what is Patriarch Bartholomew — progressive or traditional? Did he turn his back on tradition by showing fellowship with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church despite a rift of a thousand years between the Eastern and Western Churches? Or by taking seriously modern scientific evidence and calling on people to act to combat the modern issues of the pandemic and climate change? Did he shun modernity by upholding the institutions and customs of the Church that have largely been kept intact from the time of the early Church? Or could it be, perhaps, that the choice between these first two options is a false one — that he has not chosen tradition over progress or vice versa, and neither must we? I argue the latter. 

Religion can get a bad rap sometimes, as being anti-scientific, exclusive or stuck in the past. Over the years, however, and culminating in the Patriarch’s visit this past Thursday, the Orthodox Christian Faith has shown me the feasibility and beauty of adhering to the richness of two thousand years of tradition while also understanding the needs of the times — that we can retain historical roots while also being compatible with modern science, inclusive and forward-looking. As His All-Holiness reminded us, “Religion must function and serve in connection with and never in isolation from science. 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 fuse them, to recognize that they are especially powerful when we allow them to complement each other. 

The Orthodox Church finds itself in a peculiar situation in that, with its conservative customs and ancient art and language, it is dressed in the clothing of tradition yet not completely constrained by it. It works diligently to preserve the Christian Faith throughout time, yet also is sensitive to the times and does not close itself off from the modern world. Its exterior is ancient, but its core is timeless, relevant and responsive to any period or point in history. 

We can sometimes fall into the trap of viewing the Church as holding us back from progress. We tend to think when we value religious traditions and practices, we do so at the expense of advocating change in the world. However, Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit serves as a reminder that this is a myth; the Church, instead, enables and actually obliges us to respond to the situations of the times. Nor is support for progressive practices and policies my own optimistic twist on Church teachings. Patriarch Bartholomew himself gave an explicit nod to progress, citing the need to transform our world: “This broader worldview is what enables us to imagine a world that is different to the one we have created or become accustomed to. It is the conviction that something that has not yet happened can actually happen with the cooperation of everyone and the synergy of God.”

In the single figure of the Ecumenical Patriarch, we saw 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 final call to action, the Patriarch encouraged us, “It is you, college students, that offer us the optimism that we so yearn for. The readiness to accept change and sacrifice, the capacity to overcome polarization and partisanship, the conviction to be catalysts of social and ecological justice, as well as, quite frankly, the opportunity to save democracy and our planet.”

We youth are especially pressured to view 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 bridged this gap with his presence on campus and the above message. So, whenever we question what place tradition can have in modern times, we need only look to the example of His All-Holiness Bartholomew — the representative of the Orthodox Church, which is characterized by conservation — calling for a transformation of the world.

A former resident of Lyons Hall, Eva Analitis is a senior majoring in political science and pre-health. Even though 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 views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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