If I were asked to identify one fundamental characteristic that separated the East from the West, I would not hesitate for even a second or two before answering.
I do not mean political conservatism (although most Eastern Christians are politically conservative). I mean a fundamental, philosophical conservatism that is not apparent to an outsider, a conservatism that is unknown in the West, a conservatism that is perhaps the primary roadblock to any ecumenical effort between Orthodoxy and Catholicism.
As I put it in a comment on a traditionalist Roman Catholic blog some months ago, if we use politics as an analogy for theology, Roman Catholics are Joe Lieberman and we are Mike Pence. Jimmy Carter and Pat Buchanan. You get the idea.
Few Roman Catholics understand why the filioque is such an important issue to us, for example. The reason is that it is an innovation. It worked its way into the Western church, but critically, was not discussed, agreed upon, or added by the Church. That it changes the theology of the Trinity is almost a secondary issue. There are those who insist that it does not change the theology of the Godhead, but they are ignoring the primary issue, that the Church did not agree upon it, or put it in the Creed. It is, as such, the ultimate violation of that Eastern conservatism, and will never be acceptable.
But the filioque is only one issue of many, all of which can be reduced to Eastern conservatism vs. Western liberalism. Anything which was declared to be dogma after the Seventh Ecumenical Council, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 AD — the last council at which all of the ancient patriarchates, and therefore, all of the Church was represented — will never be accepted as dogma by the East. The Orthodox see Roman Catholic dogma as an unwarranted extension because after the Great Schism, Rome kept declaring more and more beliefs to be dogma. Every such belief is unacceptable as dogma to the Orthodox.
To look at it from a different perspective, there has always been an almost obsessive drive to further define and specify belief in the West that has not existed in the East. In the East, dogma is not the whole of the faith; in the West, it is, and it is expanded, continually and unilaterally.
Let’s take as an example the assumption of the Theotokos. An Orthodox Christian may or may not believe that the Theotokos was bodily taken into heaven. It is not dogma. If a Catholic asks, “Do you believe in the assumption?” the answer is technically no, but only because it is not dogma. “No” doesn’t mean that no Orthodox believes that the Theotokos was taken into heaven; indeed, many do. “No” means that no Orthodox is required to believe that the Theotokos was taken into heaven.
Another example is transubstantiation. The Real Presence is absolutely Orthodox dogma. Transubstantiation is not. We do not know how or when the gifts become the Body and Blood of Our Lord, nor do we particularly care. We are far more comfortable with mystery than Western Christians.
Nothing that was not dogma by the last Ecumenical Council can be dogma now, no matter who declares it such, because dogma is what all Orthodox Christians have believed from the beginning. It does not grow or expand. It merely is.
We are extremely conservative, and eye innovation, or anything that vaguely looks like innovation, dubiously. Catholics see themselves as conservative, but what they do not understand is that to us, they look like innovators. Jimmy Carter, Pat Buchanan. And one sees this granite-like conservatism not only among the Orthodox, but also among Eastern Rite Catholics.
And for some reason, the West is very uncomfortable with leaving points of faith up to the individual. An Orthodox Christian may, for example, believe that the gifts are transformed at the Words of Institution, or the Epiklesis, where the key concept here is in the modal, “may.” When the transformation occurs is not dogma, and we feel no need to define it. Rome felt the need to add the when and how, and to us, this is an innovation. That we believe in the Real Presence does not make transubstantiation as dogma any more acceptable to us.
No innovation is acceptable. It makes no difference how logical or defensible it may be. The only “addition” to dogma that is acceptable is that which has been declared at an Ecumenical Council, at which the entire Church is represented, and which can be documented in the writings of the Church Fathers.
Western Christians who are interested in ecumenical discussions with us need to fully understand that rock of conservatism upon which our faith is built. Otherwise, their understanding will be at best partial and faulty.