Monday, June 06, 2011

And West Is West

A long way back, we had some fun at the expense of an imaginary colleague whom we called "Eastern Guy." You remember: the Lutheran pastor with an office full of mass-production icons, and who "who, when faced with an unpalatable theological proposition, takes refuge behind a pious murmur to the effect that 'I don't know how the East would feel about that.' " Even though Eastern Guy is, at some level, us ourselves and many of our dearest friends, we said that we had a hard time taking him seriously.

Well, Robert Taft has a hard time taking Eastern Guy seriously, too. For those who aren't familiar with his works, Taft is a Jesuit, a student of worship and perhaps the greatest Western expert on Eastern liturgics. His book on the development of the Daily Office remains one of the most impressive works of liturgical scholarship we have ever read.

Searching Google for something else, we stumbled upon this undated (and typo-ridden) essay by Taft, called "Eastern Presuppositions" and Western Liturgical Renewal. We won't try to summarize it -- it's an easy but thought-provoking read, and well worth your time.

But Taft, with the easy style of a heavyweight champion sparring with a stockbroker, takes to task Eastern Guy's customary assumptions about the world of Orthodox worship -- that it is older and therefore more "authentic" than Catholic worship, and that it somehow provides a window into primitive Christianity which is obscured in the West. As Taft demonstrates, this is Romantic fluff -- and, worse, Orientalist fluff, in the sinister sense that Edward Said has forever given that word.

Here are our favorite remarks:

Though I am an academic Orientalist who loves the Christian east and has dedicated his entire scholarly life to the study of its traditions with the express aim of understanding them sympathetically and fostering and preserving them, I am not one of those romantics who considers the east--for heaven only knows what imagined reasons--to possess some sort of traditional superiority, a deeper spirituality, a more ancient and traditional monasticism, a more faithfully apostolic liturgy.


Eastern Christianity finds itself in a profound crisis from which it has not yet found the means to extricate itself, and even more preoccupying is the refusal of so many to recognize this situation, or their attempts to distract attention from it by lashing out, with a chauvinistic xenophobia altogether too traditional in Russian and Balkan history, against enemies, real or imagined, who

are presumed culpable for whatever is wrong. Eastern Christianity has not yet learned to face modernity, a lesson learned in the west only with great pain and many failures. [Which Taft goes on to list.]

and above all this, which attacks the misunderstanding most frequently adverted, both by the Orthodox and by others with less excuse for not knowing better:

Far from being a bastion of immovable tradition,

preserving intact the liturgy of apostolic times, the east was the main source of change, responsible for practically every single liturgical innovation from Jesus until the Islamic conquests, which stifled this remarkable creativity.

Mind you, the article isn't the least bit hostile toward Orthodox or Byzantine Christianity; quite the reverse. We have known scholars whose chosen speciality was a subject or author whom they detested, and whom they devoted their lives to undermining; taft isn't like that. He says he loves the East, and he clearly means it. But he loves it as it is, not as he imagines it might be. And isn't that how we all want to be loved?

1 comment:

Cha said...

"But he loves it as it is, not as he imagines it might be. And isn't that how we all want to be loved?"

Indeed - it's the realistic sort of love that everyone should have for their own faith tradition - whatever it is. Warts and all.

Would that those who evangelize and catechize in all Christian traditions would keep this in mind, we might be led more toward prayer and faithfulness and less toward kitchy bumper stickers and t-shirts.