Thursday, May 24, 2012

First Things on "Russian Orthodoxy’s Unreconciled Dualism"

In recent days this has gotten a lot of attention. Most commentary I've read has been negative, but give it a read yourself. It's a hit-piece of the lowest order. I'm aggrieved that First Things saw fit to publish it.

(First Things) - At the height of the Cold War, political scientists questioned whether the Orthodox Church had become incompatible with the modern state. Although history textbooks highlight how patriarch and emperor were integral offices to the Byzantine Empire, the West has always had a far more tangible division between pope and prince. I would not say always; the Papal States come to mind. In Russia in particular, church and state have been in elaborate entanglement for centuries, the result of which has paradoxically been widespread abandonment of the practice of the faith. And contrary to those inclined to see a triumphant tale of Christianity emerging from communism, today’s Church remains plagued by the same ills it has borne for centuries. The closeness of the Russian Church to the State did not cause Communism. To say that the "result" of an Orthodox nation being close with its Orthodox hierarchy is a selective rewriting of history that ignores many of the causes of the revolution.

Today, the Cold War is history and the Russian Orthodox Church again enjoys religious freedom, yet it has little influence on public discourse, especially when compared with the impact of the Catholic Church, which weighs in on arguments even in countries where Catholics do not even comprise a majority (consider, for example, the recent successes prelates have had in setting the terms of the American contraception mandate and British gay marriage debates). Some Russians (and a fair number of Westerners) imagine this is simply the impact of Soviet atheism on the Russian people, but the reality is more complicated. Where has he been? The Russian Church's Department for External Church Relations has taken a very vocal and visible role on issues of Christianophobia, abortion, protection of the family and many other topics not only in Russia, but also in Europe. They have spoken at the Council of Europe, meetings of the European Union, and many other bodies in recent years in defense of Christian values. Additionally, the complaint of the day is that the Russian Church is too involved with political and moral debates (Putin, the Pussy Riot issue, gay parades, etc.).

The role of the Orthodox Church in the Russian Empire diverged significantly from that of any Western Christian denomination after 1648. The Tsar’s authority over them was derived from the Tsar’s authority over the Church.

In the 1650s, Patriarch Nikon sought to reform Russian Orthodox services and rituals by making them more true to historical Byzantine ceremonies in line with Moscow’s claim to be the “Third Rome.” And in the early 1700s Peter the Great further consolidated control over the Russian Orthodox Church by replacing the Patriarch of Moscow with the Holy Synod, a council of bishops overseen by a civil servant. The church effectively became a government ministry under the Tsar’s personal authority. Though this restored the Tsar’s legitimacy through the Church, the core ecclesiastical hierarchy fell into disrepute: by the nineteenth century, Orthodox priests were generally illiterate, sons of previous priests (they were required to marry), and unemployed. Forced to scrounge their subsistence from fees for Church services, Orthodox priests were regarded a social parasites by Russian intellectuals.
As a direct consequence of this muddling of spiritual and temporal power, nineteenth-century Russians turned to Orthodox ascetics, rather than the priests and bishops of the Orthodox Church for spiritual guidance. They became, to use a contemporary phrase, “spiritual but not religious.” And as the century wore on, Orthodox believers seemed to find confirmation of this view in the arts. They became enraptured, in particular, by Leo Tolstoy’s vision of Christian anarchism: the only true sovereign was God and God alone, expressed through the story of Christ. In 1894, Tolstoy published The Kingdom of God is Within You, framing the spiritual foundation of the modern Russian soul: the Orthodox institution is key to Russia, but theology and spiritual understanding is profoundly personal. The Tsar unwittingly reinforced this dichotomy by suppressing Tolstoy’s religious writings, an act which only boosted Tolstoy’s popularity further.

True, the crucible of the communist years saw much state repression of the Orthodox religion, but in many ways it also restored it as an institution. In 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, Joseph Stalin restored authority to the Patriarch from the Synod, making the Orthodox Church as at least a nominally autocephalous body. This is sickeningly written and in quite poor taste. The slaughter of millions of faithful, the oppression and tracking of what they let live, the ukase of St. Tikhon for the faithful abroad to organize themselves, the blowing up of churches or repurposing for secular use, and many other indignities could hardly be called a restoration. For shame, sir.

Nevertheless, today’s Orthodox Church faces a unique problem. Post-Soviet Russia retains a large number of atheists. 50% of Russians confess themselves Orthodox, but only 7% attend church services once a month; a mere 3% do so every week. These numbers are markedly lower than even the most thoroughly secularized Western European countries, like France (with an 8% rate of weekly Mass attendance among self-proclaimed Catholics) or the Netherlands (12%). Yes, it does take a while to recover from a systematic program of annihilation.

Among the tiny minority of Russians who actively practice their faith, devotion is extremely stringent, to a degree many Westerners might find inconceivable. Whereas tourists visiting a Spanish cathedral, for example, might be politely asked to wear sleeves and some form of footwear, a female who enters a Russian cathedral, especially outside Moscow and St. Petersburg, should prepare for (at a minimum) a hail of loud verbal abuse from the congregation if her head is uncovered. The Church’s current Patriarch (Kirill I) was forced to recant his ecumenism by the faithful due to their fears of reconciliation with the Catholic Church.

Whereas the body of thought and practice in most of the world’s religions today runs the ideological gambit (gamut) from multicultural reformers to staunch conservatives, the Russian Orthodox Church is polarized in a dualism of non-observant believers-in-name-only and religious reactionaries who have survived the crucible of the Communist era and seem to resent everyone else, classing them as ‘outsiders.’ More evidence for this will need to be given. Simply calling something a dualism doesn't make it so.

The Russian Orthodox Church survived the Communist era and indeed doubled its confessed membership to 60 million in the years since, but the centuries-old divide between earthly authority and spiritual transcendence remains deeply ingrained in the Russian mindset. In February 2012, for example, a Russian feminist punk rock group stormed into the largest Orthodox cathedral in Moscow, performing a vulgar song beseeching, among other things, for “the Holy Mother, the Blessed Virgin,” to “chase Putin out.” When the Church’s Patriarch denounced the group, they responded via blog, “You cannot believe in an earthly tsar if his deeds contradict those values for which the Heavenly Tsar was crucified.”

The Church today has completely vacated the Russian political arena, and its impact on ordinary Russian lives is negligible. The Christian spirit has not departed Russia, but the influence of an established church is long gone. St. Paul’s hope of making “both one” (Eph.2:16) seems harder than ever, for only reactionaries remain within the institution. Balderdash.


  1. FT, alas, seems now for some time to have had a considerable animus against the Russian Church. They never seem to have scholars in the area write about it with real understanding based on current scholarship. Instead you get these hit pieces written by journalists who clearly haven't read a thing in fifty years.

  2. Someone needs to write a response to this rubbish as a correction.

  3. "and many other indignities could hardly be called a restoration. For shame, sir."
    Like the fraudulent, forced reunion of Eastern Catholic Churches with their Orthodox counterparts because the Communist authorities felt they could exert more control that way.

    1. That is true, and there are other things of which the Russian Church should be ashamed -- some of which are noted in Myers's article. But the fact remains that the article as a whole is poorly researched, tendentious, and sloppy journalism. The intent of the article is clearly not to lay out the facts as they are, but to paint the Russian Church in the worst possible light -- and if the facts get in the way, so much the worse for the facts.

  4. This is just plain insulting. This being a Christian blog I will refrain from saying what I would like to (hint: I picked up some choice language in the Navy). But I will say that the needle on my BS meter just broke off.

  5. First, let me post this for a reader who doesn't have a valid ID to use:

    "I am a Roman Catholic, a convert from atheism, and I find this article to be the worst form of rubbish one can find these days. Ask the author whether Constantine, Clovis, or Charlemagne are seen as despicable, separated tyrants, as "separate" and as respectful of the division between Church and State. I love Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church. Our own pope says it is an integral part of The Church of God. Our previous pope said it is the "other lung" of the Church. I apologize on behalf of Roman Catholics for this uneducated, illogical outrage.

    To Athanasius: Indeed. Many Catholic martyrs suffered under the Soviets as Fr. Zugger's books will attest.

    Ad Orientem: I'm normally a fan of their articles. This one was just poorly studied, written, and sought to make a point without the requisite evidence to back it up. A poor practice in science, scholarship, and rhetoric.

  6. If the Russian Orthodox are suffering from a "dualism," then so are American Christians, especially Catholics, as so many see no problem with having an opinion on abortion different from the Pope and Church (I'm not even going into the "other forms of birth control" debate).