When I began to go to an Orthodox church in 1989 I wanted to find a way to escape myself, my past and my culture. It gradually sank in that the monastic tradition of seeking my inner “desert,” in which to experience God through stillness, could only be cultivated by the practice of ritual, liturgy, prayer and fasting– not by argument let alone by a better idea, or God forbid, by repackaging. It gradually sank in that when I was asked why I’d become Orthodox a little honesty was in order.
First off, I hadn’t become anything. The Orthodox view of salvation is that it’s not a series of magical steps, akin to the one-time born-again experience, but a journey. According to the Orthodox tradition, a person never becomes saved because we are always becoming. And to be even more honest, to the extent I was becoming Orthodox, it was mostly for aesthetic reasons. I just couldn’t stand the American evangelical experience any longer for the same reasons that I prefer Shakespeare to Disney.
One may nurture, respect and love tradition and yet grow in the light of the logic of our traditions’ heart. We can do this when we realize that creation is happening continuously and that we’re at the start of our formation not at the end of it. For instance, when I watch a Shakespeare play I wish to hear it performed in the original language not rendered in some dreadful “with it” modern English. This is not a moral issue but one of aesthetics. On the other hand in Shakespeare’s day boys and men played all the women’s roles. So some traditionalist might insist that a commitment to the “changelessness” of Shakespeare’s plays demands that we continue to exclude women from acting the women’s roles in his plays. Yet today even though I am a traditionalist when it comes to defending the peerless language of the plays (not to mention our venerable liturgies) I’m also grateful that actual women actors now play the women’s roles.
I’m grateful because I honor the ethical evolution of our species.
As I note in my new book And God Said, “Billy!“ exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, I also think that this evolution honors Shakespeare’s deepest (if unconscious) creative intent. Women’s rights make Shakespeare’s plays better because women play females better than males do. The wonderful roles he wrote are now played by the women he wrote the roles about, before he could have imagined that someday the liberating logic contained in his “condescending” to write great parts for women — and thereby paying them the complement of giving “his” females psychological depth equal with his male roles — would eventually benefit actual women everywhere by inspiring people to change the way they viewed women.
We must have it both ways: defend the best of tradition, for instance our glorious liturgies (be they Orthodox or something else) and the English of Shakespeare’s glorious language, and yet move forward because we know that the creation of Creation is ongoing. If creation is judged changeless and “complete” — say in the frozen “roles” of men and women — and if rules cannot be changed, that militates against the idea that God is infinite.
Stasis binds God and us to time and place, and therefore he, she or it is no longer God. For instance we can keep our liturgies intact and yet edit out the openly anti-Semitic language found in many Lenten services that is a holdover from a less enlightened age. In doing so we prove that we’ve actually been instructed by the deeper meaning of our liturgies, and instructed by the deeper meaning of participating by choice in the direction of our own evolution.
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Frank Schaeffer is a writer and artist. His latest book — And God Said, “Billy!“ exploring the roots of American religious delusion, and offering another way to approach true spirituality, is on Kindle, iBook and NOOK for $3.99, and in paperback. It spent 8 weeks as Amazon’s #1 best seller for Political Humor.