In my book Turning to Tradition, I argued that restorationism lied at the heart of Orthodox convert movements throughout the twentieth century in America. Interestingly, that same impulse toward a primitivism, which can inspire resorationists, those who wish to “restore” what had been lost, is something that has been presented as a reason to look toward Orthodox Christianity in a recent article entitled “Scotland the Brave,” which may be found in Orthodox Canada: a Journal of Orthodox Christianity as well as republished on pravmir.com. The article has started gaining some renewed traction, though it was originally written in 2007. What makes it so interesting is the broad-brush attempt to link current Canadians to an “Orthodox” heritage. First, the author claims that Scottish heritage has a pint or two of its own running through Canadian heritage. Then the author noted the Cross of St. Andrew as hearkening back to an “Orthodox” Celtic Christianity. To bolster that claim, the author claimed, “What is very clear, Celtic Christians had far less in common with the free-wheeling nature worship one might find in certain Protestant or Roman Catholic circles than it did with the spiritual life of Greek monasteries in Byzantium. This shouldn’t surprise us: the Greeks and the Celts had the same faith and liturgical life, while the Christian Celts and the modern western confessions, distorted by the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation, do not.” To support such a claim, the article noted the resistance to centralization on the Roman bishop as a Western development and artistic similarities to Christian art found elsewhere, such as Africa and parts of the Eastern Empire. Liturgical similarities such as women wearing veils and the priest facing the altar were also noted, and led to the conclusion: “It should not surprise us to find these similarities, since in comparing the Celtic Church to the Church in Byzantium, or to Orthodox Christianity today, we are in fact comparing the Church to itself. The Orthodox Christianity of the Apostles, of the Ecumenical Councils, of the Byzantines, the Slavs, the Arabs, and the Celts – it is one faith, not many. The Celtic Church was astonishingly similar to Orthodox life today – because it was Orthodox.” Making such an argument allows the Orthodox to leapfrog over a Presbyterian heritage to return to something that is actually found, apparently in toto, in contemporary Orthodox Christianity.
There are reasons for Orthodox to slow down a bit when making such restorationist appeals, however. First, the connection found in art is one that one has to evaluate much more carefully. Artisans traveled in the Roman Empire. Artistic styles could travel and, perhaps more importantly, early Christian art was shaped by preceding art (such as Roman reliefs and Egyptian funerary art). A good source to consult o this would be Robin Margaret Jensen’sFace to Face: Portraits of the Divine in Early Christianity. The claim of an early iconostasis is one that should also be taken with some care. The iconostasis as we know it today is a late addition (“Medieval”) development. Sure, it had its roots in earlier architectural dividing points and then screens and Christians (and Jews!) were using art from late antiquity onward, but one needs to be careful that one does not perform anachronism. Indeed, that is the general weakness of restorationism writ large. It is anachronistic. This leads to a second problem: the liturgical similarities could be cited for many other areas of the Christian world as well and fails to note for liturgical variation. What one sees in Christianity of the first millennium is not actually the Byzantine Rite as we know it today, nor even simply little variations of that rite. What we see are rites, in the plural. The third weakness I wish to point out is that in making errors along the lines of these first two that I noted, the author is more easily set up to make the kind of exaggerated attacks on non-Orthodox. Sure, it is only “some” Protestants and Catholics who are into “nature worship,” but the problem here is Protestantism and Catholicism is treated as though it has a part of its faith-essence that is “nature worship.” That’s actually not true. When Protestants and Catholics turn to worship nature, they turn to worship another God. Reducing whole movements and churches to the extremes of some within the movement is grossly unfair. The same could all too easily be done to the Orthodox. Frankly, maybe it should be, though ideally by those from within, who are willing to stand for the Gospel over and above things such as ethnocentrism and bizarre “interpretations” of marriage that lead to sexless lives, etc.
In the end, Orthodox would do well to do better than mere restorationism. Restorationism distorts the faith. Orthodoxy is not simply a liturgical time-warp. Art has changed. Liturgy has changed. Theology has changed. In fact, all three have–yes–developed! Now, I know that’s anathema to those who wish to claim Orthodoxy does not uphold development of doctrine but the reality is, these things have changed. What should concern us is not whether change has occurred, but whether the changes have been natural, consistent developments. Is there a natural, consistent development from mosaics of Christ the Good shepherd to the icons on an iconostasis/templon? I think so, but I would never claim there’s no development. To reject development in favor of seeking a primitive church that can be restored (or somehow managed to survive hardly or completely unchanged) is to reject tradition, ironically.
Do I think Canadian Orthodox of Scottish heritage should not look back and see connections to what still exists in Orthodoxy? No, but I do think they should be careful in how they understand those similarities and the kind of conclusions they might draw from them.