Thursday, April 11, 2013

Bones, Flesh, and Muscles

A term I have come across when reading Orthodox writers is "ossification."  Literally, the term relates to the process of creating bone or of other parts of the body's becoming hard as bone through disease.  Figuratively, it refers to taking the Church's tradition and hardening it to the point where it is immobile, where the Church becomes a museum frozen in time, a sepulchre of faith.  While I only recall hearing this concept discussed among the Orthodox as a warning among themselves to not take tradition too far, I think it could also apply to many Catholics who attempt to do the same thing.  Ecclesial ossification is thus the hardening of the Church's tradition so that no change or growth can ever occur, a hardening that results in a Church that is no longer even alive.

On the opposite side, there is a tendency which I will call "dermification" (although "epidermification" might be more scientifically accurate).  Literally (as defined in a definition created solely by me), dermification is the process of the creation of skin or of other parts of the body's becoming temporary and becoming a substance that is sloughed off regularly (hence why "epidermification" might be more accurate).  Figuratively, it refers to taking the Church's tradition and making it weak enough that it can be tossed out as old and promptly sloughed off.  It means living only for that which is symbolic of rapidly-changing skin, that is, the latest trend that is being tested in the Church's practice.  All tradition and all new ideas are equated, and the only goal is to keep the Church "updated" and "relevant," thus sloughing off the old ideas like old skin and putting on the new skin until its time to pass.  I think there are many Catholics who do this as well, trying to view all Church practice, traditional or new, as something that should change with the times.  Ecclesial dermification is thus the striving to make the Church's practice always "relevant," always "up with the times," to the point of treating tradition as old skin to be sloughed off, leading to a Church that is ephemeral and transitory, lacking in any roots.

I see ossification and dermification as the two poles that the thought of those of the Church are always trying to balance.  Some lean towards a lifeless Church, some lean towards a traditionless Church.  Both of these trends are wrong if left to their own devices.  Instead, a balance must be struck between incorporating that which is new, inculturating the Church, the aggiornamiento of Pope Bl. John XXIII, and retaining the Church's rightful tradition, that which has been tested in the fires of truth, practice, and time and has survived.  In all of this, of course, one must never forget the Tradition of the Church and its sources, the basis of the Church: the Triune God and His revelation to us, especially in Sacred Scripture and the events It relates, particularly all that Our Lord Jesus Christ has done for us.

I would like to take these images of bones and flesh (well, really skin) and attempt to create an analogy of how to relate the Church's tradition to new practices.  This is just my attempt, in no way infallible or backed by the Magisterium, and the analogy will not be scientifically accurate, but I hope it will be useful.

First, at the basis of the Church must be her true bones: the revelation of the Triune God in history, Scripture, and Tradition.  These are the unchangeable bases of the Church.  On top of the bones comes the musculature, that which has become tradition through surviving the tests of truth, practice, and time.  Finally comes the skin, the flesh, that which is still being tried, the new practices and trends the Church.  In this model, the musculature is made of things that were originally skin but have since survived the tests of truth, practice, and time, and thus have now become part of the Church's tradition.  Not all skin becomes tradition: much does not pass one of these three tests and is thus sloughed off.  Also, not all musculature is used at once: though some things have passed the tests, it does not mean that they will be used at every time.  Some musculature may be used for centuries and then pass its role onto new musculature permanently, and sometimes that old musculature may return again someday.  Different musculature may also be used in different areas, but, no matter what, musculature retains its status as true exposition and practice of the Faith.

Thus, the Church's overall relation to the past and the present, in terms of both faith and practice, can be seen in this analogy.  The bones are the unchangeable bases of the faith, the musculature are different theologies and practices have survived the three tests of faith, practice, and time, and the skin is the collection of new theologies and practices still being tested.

As I said, this analogy is just a humble attempt, and it may be absolutely worthless and false: if so, feel free to ignore it.  I just hope that, if there is some truth in it, it may help others to resist those twin dangers, the Christian Scylla and Charybdis, of ossification and dermification.

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