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Byzantine Orthodox Ethos: A threat to Our Liturgical Theology? - Dn Philip Mathew

Deacon Shaun Mathew touches upon a matter which, though rather tangential to the topic of liturgical translation, is worth discussing, both for the theories proposed and for the resulting implications for liturgical scholarship and praxis, pastoral formation and ministry, and so on. He alleges that a “Byzantine ethos” has crept into the minds of at least some leaders in our Church (though he doesn’t name names, it is clear he is referring primarily to the young priests, deacons, and seminarians of the two American dioceses who have received their basic theological training in Eastern Orthodox seminaries in the United States), and wonders how this ethos may negatively affect them, their ministry, and the future of our Church. I am tempted to simply respond “Come and see”, being happy to welcome him back to the US any time to join us in the work of the ministry, but the ideas he has shared with us here deserve a more thoughtful response.

Let us begin with the question of ethos. While Dn Shaun defines “ethos” well enough, he doesn’t explain what constitutes what he calls the “Malankara Orthodox Syriac ethos”, or even the “Oriental Orthodox ethos”, much less the “Byzantine ethos”. Nevertheless, he goes on to make a case based on concepts which are clear enough in his own mind, but may not be held commonly by the readers, each of whom may have their own ideas about what constitutes each ethos. This is not helpful. Taking into account Dn Shaun’s definition of “ethos” as “the inner spirit with which we approach our way of life”, and my experiences over the last decade with a number of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox traditions before, during, and after seminary, I would say that the basic “ethos” of Orthodoxy is the same across the board. Certainly, each tradition has features which distinguish it from others in terms of liturgy, language, music, art, theological perspective and understanding, ecclesiastical literature and law, polity, culture, and so on, but I don’t believe these constitute a unique ethos in opposition to others, but simply a unique and important variation on a common theme. To give a simple example, a practicing Malankara Orthodox Christian should be able to visit an Orthodox parish of another tradition and have no clue about anything going on in front of him but still know in his gut that this is an Orthodox church: it has the look and feel of Orthodoxy and conveys the same experience of God. I admit this seems to be a very subjective definition of ethos, but some things are naturally subjective (though I would argue that there are some rather objective factors that go into that determination).

In fact, I think Dn Shaun implicitly agrees with my position when he says “The Byzantine orthodox perspective has benefited the youth in America and in India in that at least something Orthodox was/is transmitted to them”. Beginning his post by asserting a unique “Byzantine ethos”, he nevertheless admits here that “something Orthodox” was transmitted, and towards the end he speaks of the Byzantine seminaries infusing in our students the “need to think and live in a truly Orthodox way”: I would say that this “something Orthodox”, this “truly Orthodox way”, is in fact the Orthodox ethos (because, though our tradition is different from the Byzantine, yet we still recognize it as Orthodox), and what he calls the “Byzantine ethos” is just one particular manifestation or “incarnation” of that fundamental ethos (indeed, we have to speak of multiple “Byzantine ethoi”, since there are still more variations within what we think of as one large bloc). Such an ethos is learned by immersion in church life, and not by graduate study. But I would welcome a clarification from Dn Shaun on how he would define each of the ethoi he mentioned so that we are not putting words into his mouth.

The second major point the author brings up seems to revolve around a misunderstanding. He writes “…when we have one or two generations of youths trained to view a liturgical manuscript by teachers who received Byzantine or Roman Catholic training, is it possible that we could lose the ability to view our liturgical texts from our own ethos?” I might begin by observing that a number of notable Malankara Orthodox liturgical experts who have received their scholarly training in such Western Christian centers as Rome and France have not suffered from this handicap, so I see no reason why “youths” with graduate theological training from Eastern Orthodox academies in the US would be any different except in the realm of intellectual aptitude, wherein there is obviously a range. In fairness, the same could be said about the students graduating from OTS, Kottayam–there is obviously a range of intellectual aptitude. But the major misunderstanding is in how he approaches liturgical understanding. When I read quotes such as the above and statements about the tools we use to flush out our theology from liturgical texts, I think that the author confuses a) liturgy (the thing itself, what it is, how it functions, etc.), (b) liturgiology (encompassing the scientific study of liturgy, analyzing texts, words, hymns, rites, manuscript traditions, origins, development, etc.), and (c) liturgical theology (how liturgy expresses theology, how it theologizes, theology gleaned from liturgical practice, etc.). What he has in mind in the quote above regarding manuscripts seems to be liturgiology, for which the methods of analysis are pretty objective and not denominational (if anyone doubts this, I am happy to provide a short bibliography).

Dn Shaun is correct to note that, because there is a unique West Syriac liturgy, there is a unique understanding implicit therein, and we cannot simply transpose Byzantine (or for that matter Ethiopian or Latin) understandings of liturgy on our system. Our liturgy has its own internal order, structure, rationale, “language”, and this needs to be learned, comprehended, appreciated, and taught on its own terms, both academically and experientially. I suspect this is the greater part of his argument, and with this I wholeheartedly agree. But I would disagree that we don’t have anything to learn from the other liturgical traditions. We can say, like St Justin Martyr, “whatever is true is ours”, whatever is true can shed light on our own tradition precisely because it is true and we are dealing with truth. How applicable something is to our situation can be argued, but it is still true and informative. We can indeed learn from those of other traditions or ethoi who have studied our liturgy and written and taught about it. Their personal religious ethos may not be “Malankara Orthodox Syriac”, but those of us steeped in this tradition can take the benefits of their research and insight that much further because we live the tradition about which they write and make observations from the outside. And, quite frankly, we as a Church cannot with a straight face say that we have done a superlative job of living out our own West Syriac liturgical ethos. Dn Shaun is well aware, to give but one example, of the major part of our proper Sunday and festal offices that has yet to be translated into any vernacular used by our Church (except for the books of Sedre). The “Malankara Orthodox Syriac ethos”, as it is expressed by our communities on both sides of our factional infighting (outside the seminaries, monasteries, and institutions such as SEERI), often seems to be an eclectic mix of West Syriac liturgy with quasi-Western and Indian elements coupled with a more or less mainline Protestant understanding of theology, preaching, and church life, except with those elements that distinguish us from Marthomites. So whatever we can learn about our authentic tradition is worth learning in order to regain our bearings and set our Church on a healthier path.

Dn Philip Mathew
White Plains, New York

Source: ICON