So, I am reading Brothers Karamozov. I withheld reading Russian literature until now (my 40s), feeling, well, inadequate to the task. I have also not read A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Proust) for the same reasons, and am reluctant to dive in even yet to that work. Maybe when I'm 50.
It so happens that I also came to the Orthodox Christian faith, which is fortunate for I'm afraid much would be lost in not having been exposed to the living Orthodox faith prior to picking up Dostoyevsky's great work.
Being in the midst of this reading, and watching from the sidelines the various skirmishes on the internet about what is, and what is not, appropriately Orthodox (something those of us on the North American continent particularly struggle with, I think, for we have few, if any, inherent Orthodox reference cultures of our own unless brought with us recently from foreign lands; moreover, we tend to be navel gazers like the rest of our society ["and how does that make you feel, Mr. X?"]), I have been thinking about some of the things we North American Orthodox take for granted as "Authentically Orthodox(tm)" that hardly more than a century ago might have been quite open to debate.
In the Bros. K., for example, there is a recurring theme about the then-current debate among monastics and other Russians about the idea of an "Elder" or Staretz
even being properly Orthodox:"Authorities on the subject assert that the institution of 'elders' is of recent date, not more than a hundred years old in our monasteries, though in the [O]rthodox East, especially in Sinai and Athos, it has existed over a thousand years. It is maintained that it existed in ancient times in Russia also, but through the calamaties which overtook Russia--the Tartars, civil war, the interruption of relations with the East after the destruction of Constantinople--this institution fell into oblivion. It was revived among us towards the end of the last century by one of the great 'ascetics,' as they called him, Paissy Velitchkovsky, and his disciples. But to this day it exists in few monasteries only, and has sometimes been almost persecuted as an innovation in Russia.
. . .
"Meantime the elders immediately began to be highly esteemed among the people. Masses of the ignorant people as well as men of distinction flocked, for instance, to the elders of our monastery to confess their doubts, their sins, and their sufferings, and ask for counsel and admonition. Seeing this, the opponents of the elders declared that the sacrament of confession was being arbitrarily and frivolously degraded, though the continual opening of the heart tot he elder by the monk or the layman had nothing of the character of the sacrament."
- Bros. K., in Chapter Entitled: Elders (Garrett Trans.)
". . . several different causes were simultaneously at work, one of which was the deeply rooted hostility to the institution of elders as a pernicious innovation, an antipathy hidden deep in the heart of many of the monks."
- Bros. K., in Chapter Entitled: The Breath of Corruption (Garrett Trans.)
Clearly Dostoyevsky sought to describe life in Russia, and the political and social milieu in approximately his own time, and one could posit that these views on the authenticity of Elders were, in fact, in debate in the mid- to late-1800s in Russia, whatever the provenance in Athos, Antioch, and North Africa.
C.S. Lewis, in his introduction to St. Athanasius' great work On the Incarnation, notes that one of the values of reading history and paying attention to our elders is that (I highly paraphrase here) probably those we tend to agree with and those on whom history has adjudged profoundly evil or wrong, shared certain assumptions and worldview about a great many things that they would simply not debate, for all their differences.
Thus, one might argue that the Orthodox do not take an Augustinian view (modified by scholastics, or not - not germane here) of original sin; but nevertheless, probably all of the Orthodox of Augustine of Hippo's time, and St. Augustine himself, likely shared more common opinion together about most things and would stand on their side of history against a great many things we take for granted now as "established" about both doctrinal, worship and ethical and moral matters in the Church.
[As an aside, this is one reason why I ultimately had to abandon my childhood denomination's views about 'believer's baptism.' If this was such an important issue, surely it would have caused as great a battle as the Arian schism over the use of, essentially, one very carefully worded statement. The fact that there is silence coupled with long-standing practice of baptizing infants suggests that the historic Church never saw this as a particularly troubling issue.]
We now, here in North America, take the role of Elders as "Authentic Orthodoxy(tm)" with almost no questions. Some, particularly in the Slavic traditions, will often opine from sayings of the Elders almost to a point of ignoring the original statements of our Lord in the Gospels or the teachings of the Apostles, early Saints, or Desert Fathers of the first centuries. There is a certain fashionability, I suppose, to quoting the later elders.
I am not challenging the institution of Elders, or their work (a tree shall be known by its fruit). I have a quote by Elder Pasios on the masthead. But what Bros. K. makes me consider is, what other things that we, in North America, take as "Authentically Orthodox(tm)," whether choral styles, or prayers, etc., would be seen by our forebears as potentially dangerous and questionable innovation?
[Another aside on choirs - I have a lovely record (yes folks, real vinyl 33 1/3rd LP!) of the Heirarchical Divine Liturgy recorded in the local Greek Orthodox parish in the 1960s, replete with organ accompaniment. I can attest that the music is VERY different from some more "modern" adoptions of a more "pre-1054 Byzantine chant" such as is in vogue now. What does that say about our pretensions and desire to get more "authentic" over and above the real point of our worship?]
I have no answers - but I think that we need to be careful in this age of rapid change, challenges to traditional life, and the like, that we neither embrace new ideas too quickly, nor rush to announce that we have found a "more authentic" historic way that we should "return to." Either has pitfalls in a society where authenticity is marketed to us as a thing to purchase, and to be desired above all else. We should listen to the collective voice of the Church from the past, and weigh carefully, in love, that which leads us soberly to our Lord, and that which is enthusiastic but misguided change (whether to the "old stuff" or to the "new stuff") that, in fact, leads us into pride and delusion.
Here, I am not speaking of rather straightforward things, such as abortion being wrong, or women's ordinations - these appear so settled in the life of the Church that to start announcing some new changes would (IMO) be a dangerous innovation. I am speaking about things like debates over translations of prayers, and texts, and the ordering of bishops among themselves, or whether we ought to rush to through the pews out of the 1930s church when 60% of the parish grew up that way, simply because it's "less Orthodox."
In the end, there is but One whom we seek, and He is not more authentic or less authentic, neither old nor new, but rather the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the Existing One.
I welcome any thoughts on this - for mine are poor enough.