St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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The Tension Between Form and Spirit

Newspapers recently noted the drop in Protestantism below majority status in the US.  The articles also said, in the fine print, that all religions were experiencing diminished numbers, maybe because commitments to any broad organization are way down, too.  This raises the age-old issue of “organized religion.”  Here’s my take.

One struggle in faith is to find the balance between Spirit and form.  The Spirit blows where it wills, as Jesus said, and no one can predict its whereabouts.  But an organization inevitably grows to give form and substance to the Spirit.

When form is opposed to Spirit, tension rises.  Change agents, innovators, and creative forces all work toward outpourings of the Spirit.   Keepers of the flame, conservators, and guardians all work to preserve the organism that bears the Spirit.  Frequently they come into tension.

As a priest of the church, I strive to conserve a tradition that offers the essence of faith from generation to generation – without strangling the spirit.  I don’t understand those who act as if there was no church between Pentecost and, say, the 16th Century.  As church historian Jaroslav Pelikan famously said, “traditionalism is the dead faith of the living; Tradition is the living faith of the dead.”  Tradition is the form the Spirit takes in the church.

Orthodox Christians are committed to the fullness of the faith, which involves gestures and the use of the senses, historic patterns of worship, and interpretation of scripture.  These things enable people to experience faith beyond simply thinking about it or claiming to be believers.  We hope that we have form and Spirit in balance.  We think this is why we have experienced only one major division in our history.  We think that we should wait before changing things, that discretion is the better part of valor, and that ideas need time to prove themselves right.  We believe the old axiom that whoever marries the Spirit of the Age will be quickly widowed.

I surely understand that forms and structures may block or hamper communication.  Bluntly, some rules and regulations get in the way of people seeing what the church offers the world.  But conservation is not all that bad.  It has its merits, and to my mind they outweigh the disadvantages.

Look at the growth of the multiple divisions and fragmentations in Christianity.  Reformers tried to “get it right,” “to start over,” “to return to the New Testament Church” and so forth, only to fail to achieve the unity they sought to restore.  Some tried to reduce the elements to some imagined or proposed bottom line of faith, and that didn’t work very well either.

There are always those who want to re-invent the wheel.  Truth to tell, the next generation will consolidate and organize the thrust of the re-inventors and by the third generation there will be those calling again for reform, opposed to those who hold the, by now, “sacred trust.”  We have seen this so often throughout history you’d think we’d get the message.  We don’t.

We cannot escape the tension between organization and creativity, between form and Spirit.  We can’t overcome the tension by denying it.  We overcome it by embracing it, by making it an ongoing part of our life together.

No one denies the freedom of the Spirit to lead in new directions.  If you lock the institution up, you cage the Spirit.  But if you destroy the institution that bears the Tradition, where will the Spirit go?  All the innovations that last are Spirit-driven.  The rest pass like so much straw in the wind.  Organized religion may be down, but it’s not out because it is a necessity to balance form and Spirit.

published november 2012