Tuesday, August 3, 2021

For Whom Does Elpidophoros Speak?

From the blog Handwritings on the Wall, a post entitled "For Whom Does Elpidophoros Speak?" What I have seen as the primary criticism was not the overly broad acceptance of many ways to live (which was read by some as a level of plurality unacceptable to Orthodoxy), but his rather biting criticism of the Russian Church. It left the EP open to cries of hypocrisy as it has very openly aligned itself with the US State Department on many fronts. Difficult to decry church-state relations on the heels of the Ukraine kerfuffle.

Archbishop Elpidophoros has caused consternation among the Orthodox faithful by the speech that he gave at the International Religious Freedom Summit held in Washington D.C., 15 July 2021. I posted the entirety of his speech a few post back. In the speech he stated:

When you elevate one religion above all others, it is as if you decide there is only one path leading to the top of the mountain. But the truth is you simply cannot see the myriads of paths that lead to the same destination, because you are surrounded by boulders of prejudice that obscure your view.

This particular passage was excerpted and made into a widely circulated meme on the Internet.  Some saw this excerpt and took it to mean that Elpidophoros was suggesting that there are many ways to salvation.  It generated a flurry of criticism on various blog sites.  I was unaware of the offending paragraph when I was asked for my thoughts on Elpidophoros’ speech.  I read through the text of his speech twice.  I was a bit baffled by the wordiness of the text and the highfalutin language he used.  I finally found the stinking sardine in the pile of waffle (Elpidophoros’ speech) thanks to the Monomakhos article and a comment from a clerical friend.

At first I didn’t catch the remark about “myriads of paths” mostly because Elpidophoros gave the speech in what appears to have been a secular, political context—the International Religious Freedom Summit.  As an American I am very sympathetic to a secular state and to religious pluralism.  As a Christian I believe that Jesus is the only way to the Father.  As an Orthodox Christian I believe that the Orthodox Church is the one true Church.  So how does one speak as an Orthodox Christian to a diverse non-Orthodox setting like the Summit?  Answer: With care and nuance.

I gained a better understanding from a YouTube video in which former U.S. Senator, now U.S. Ambassador, Sam Brownback was interviewed on EWTN about the Summit. Brownback explained that the Summit is bringing together major leaders of the different faiths from all over the world.  He went on to explain: “We’re not talking theology.”  That gave me a different perspective on the Summit—a more positive one.  Too many of the conflicts in the world today have been exacerbated by religious ideology.  We need religious leaders to encourage their followers to peacefully coexist with their neighbors of different faith backgrounds.  In my opinion, Archbishop Elpidophoros could have done a better job of bracketing his comment about having only one path leading to the top of the mountain, i.e., that he was talking about state-religion relations, not about theology in the usual sense.  Loosely read, Elpidophoros’ mountain metaphor can be construed as an allusion to a universalist soteriology—an affront to Orthodoxy.  Read from a secular, political angle, it can be understood as advocating the protection of religious freedom, something American Orthodox Christians can affirm.  It seems to me that, unlike Ambassador Brownback, who spoke with nuance and sensitivity, Archbishop Elpidophoros stumbled in his speech and gave unnecessary offense to some Orthodox Christians.  

As I see it, Elpidophoros’ challenge is how to speak to a non-Orthodox audience while being faithful to Orthodox Tradition.  I believe that it is very desirable that Hagia Sophia be restored as an Orthodox house of worship.  However, for Elpidophoros to drag in the Ukrainian mess and to make a veiled swipe against the Moscow Patriarchate’s alliance with the Kremlin is to open a huge can of worms.  How does Elpidophoros reconcile his veiled swipe at the Moscow Patriarchate with the historic Orthodox teaching of symphonia?  From the political or governmental perspective, there is a certain confusing ambiguity in Archbishop Elpidophoros’ speech: Is he speaking as a leader of Orthodox Christians who reside in the U.S. or on behalf of Patriarch Bartholomew, who resides in Istanbul, Turkey?  And, who has a vested interest in the Ukrainian-Russian controversy?  Put another way, does Elpidophoros speak for us American Orthodox Christians?  It has been two years since he migrated to the United States in 2019.  

Archbishop Elpidophoros’ importance at the Summit lies in the fact that he represents and leads the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in the U.S. — the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese. There is a certain irony in Elpidophoros’ presence at an international summit on religious freedom when he, in his capacity as Patriarch Bartholomew’s personal agent, perpetuates Greek colonialism in the U.S..  It is time for there to be an American Orthodox Church.  It is time that externally imposed hierarchs be returned to Istanbul where they were born and for an American-born hierarch to be elevated as primate for the autocephalous American Orthodox Church.  

Robert Arakaki, Ph.D.

Political scientist and Asian-American convert to Orthodoxy


  1. "...Loosely read, Elpidophoros’ mountain metaphor can be construed as an allusion to a universalist soteriology—an affront to Orthodoxy. Read from a secular, political angle, it can be understood as advocating the protection of religious freedom, something American Orthodox Christians can affirm..."

    Dr. Arakaki does not disagree with Archbishop Elpidophoros answer to "Christ and Culture" in any real way, other than a minor quibble with language and style in communication. For both of them Classical Liberalism and its "privatization" of Christianity and all other "religion", subsumed under a certain assertion about public/private distinctions, governance, and human freedom is accepted in full.

    Indeed, even his complaint of Archbishop Elpidophoros critique of Russian's Church current answer to "Christ and Culture" is a Classical Liberal's desire for a Church culture and hierarchy that reflects its own (classically liberal) concerns, and not out of any actual historical or theoretical understanding of Unam Sanctam per se.

    As Schmemann often said, once you accept this schizophrenic split of the world into the "sacred" and the "profane", you have lost the *essence* of (Orthodox) Christianity from the get go. I wonder if there it is possible to be a "political scientist" and not be a Classical Liberal? Anyone have an example?

  2. The Greek state pays the salaries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's clergy both in Greece (e.g., Crete) and elsewhere in Europe. Elpidophoros' criticism of close church-state relations was deeply hypocritical.

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  4. I see that Fr. Leonid Kishkovsky (long time director the OCA's "Office of External Affairs"), that implacable defender of Classical Liberalism in the society,culture and the Church fell asleep in the Lord yesterday evening. He would have been fully on board with the *essence* of Archbishop Elpidophoros "answer" and its concerns. In a real way his position as 'Director of External Affairs' was misleading, because for these old liberal soldiers the real battle was *within* the Church.

  5. I am delighted to see that you have reposted Dr. Arakaki's article with attribution and link to the original. May I offer you another article that may be interest to your readers?

  6. Jake, By “Classical Liberalism,” I assume you are referring to Lockean Liberalism. Political science is a vast, sprawling discipline within which are many different points of view. So, to answer your question: Yes, it is possible to be a political scientist and not be a Classical Liberal. Other philosophical orientations include for example: Neo-Marxist theory, the Frankfurt Critical Theory School, post-colonial theory, Michel Foucault, and also the rational choice school.

    But more to the point, I cannot see how one can be an American without adhering to Lockean liberalism which assumes religious pluralism and religious tolerance. Locke’s political philosophy is the underpinning for the U.S. Constitution. You referenced Alexander Schmemann’s critique of the schizophrenic separation of the sacred from the profane. My understanding is that he made this critique against a particular theological point of view, not against a particular political philosophy. But I would say that to be an Orthodox Christian in the secular United States is to be caught between two radically clashing worldviews, one ancient and the other modern.

    By your reference to “Christ and Culture” which you put in quotes, I am guessing that you have in mind the famous work by H. Richard Niebuhr. I have read it but it did not make much of an impression on me. It should be kept in mind that Niebuhr was a Christian theologian and ethicist, not a political scientist. While Niebuhr may be a liberal Protestant, this kind of liberalism is a far cry from the classical Lockean Liberalism, which is the most well known form of liberalism. I hope you have not made the mistake of confusing the two.

    From reading your comment, I get the impression that you are hostile to Lockean Liberalism and that you favor the fusion of the religious and political spheres. I get this impression from your reference to the 1302 papal bull Unam Sanctam, which fuses the religious and political sphere under the papacy. However, Unam Sanctam is a Roman Catholic document that reflects a particular way of thinking during the Middle Ages. It puzzles me as to why you bring in this heterodox teaching into an Orthodox forum. And if you are opposed to Lockean Liberalism, then do you also reject the philosophical basis for the U.S. Constitution? If you are an American, are you then opposed to the U.S. Constitution?

    Lastly, I did not disagree with Archbishop Elpidophoros’ mountain metaphor because I want to give him the benefit of the doubt in light of what I thought was an awkwardly written speech. I thought his speech could have been better written. As an Orthodox Christian, I believe that we must avoid rushing to pass judgment on our hierarchs. I do believe that it is good for Orthodox Christians to speak up at public forums. However, they should do so in a manner to promotes clarity of thought, not confusion and consternation.

    Robert Arakaki

    1. Dr. Robert Arakaki,

      Yes, I think you frame it well, "it" being a philosophical and indeed theological trap, when you say:

      "...I cannot see how one can be an American without adhering to Lockean liberalism which assumes religious pluralism and religious tolerance... Alexander Schmemann’s critique of the schizophrenic separation of the sacred from the profane. My understanding is that he made this critique against a particular theological point of view, not against a particular political philosophy..."

      As the Roman Catholic philosopher points out, it is difficult to see anything at all beyond the horizon of Classical (Lockean) Liberalism ( https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5bb7cb2193a632487214565f/t/603956e7bd383e4d84e937e1/1614370537086/Hanby+-+The+Birth+of+the+Liberal+Order+and+the+Death+of+God.pdf ).

      You go so far as to say that an American without assenting to the Lockean Liberal order, and the political, cultural, metaphysical, and theological assumptions behind it. In my and others opinion Classical Liberalism is in the end (and I think we are seeing this play out in modern western culture) the *death* of tolerance and religious pluralism, not their protection/preservation. The death of the "Protestant Consensus" along with the sexual revolution in the 1960's has in particular revealed the fundamental weakness of Classical Liberalism's "answer" in general and Christian's application of CL to the problem of "Christ and Culture", that is the what/how of Church's relationship to "the world" and it's practical expressions in culture, government, economics, etc.

      No, Fr. Schmemann's critique was not limited to "a theological view", because a central plank of Fr. Schmemann's critique are the very theological/metaphysical presuppositions that make Classical Liberalism a theoretical and (most importantly) practical possibility.

      The latin phrase "Unam Sanctam" ("One Holy" from the Creed) refers (in academic theology in particular, but more widely as well) to the theological and ecclesiological principals behind the Church's Unity and Holiness, most often in reference to its ecclesiology - not just the particular Papal Bull of the same name. For Orthodoxy questions such as "what and how is the Orthodox Church One ecclesiastical body, given that it appears to be a collection of ethno-national Churchs that share most things in common at least since the fall of the Roman Empire?" are particularly relevant. The conflict between Moscow and the EP bring these fundamental questions and assumptions to the fore.

      Have to run - will say more later!


    2. Robert as a reader of your web site I appreciate much of what you say there but the Greek hierarchs long ago lost all respect with me. In my own town they placed a dynamic young priest in a small Greek parish with little supervision knowing that despite being married with children of his own, he had a sexual preference for teen boys. When the inevitable occured, the priest ran and was brought back to our town in chains on the evening news. They called a really fine priest out of retirement to tend the flock until another priest could be assigned. The retired priest requested to go back on retirement. He was denied. He and his wife would have been destitute. Fortunately several men of high means and stirling reputation in my non-Greek parish made sure that would not happen with the support of Bishop Basil. That was in the early 90's. He reposed a few years ago but his widow is still with us today by the grace of God. I have not listened to the Greeks or worshipped in their parish here since. Our parish also received the family of the young boy who was targeted. It is a pleasure to have them. As far as I know they did not even receive an apology from the GOA.

      I saw the fallout with my own eyes. The Greek priest who was thrown away was a fine Christian man of great integrity. He did what he could in my parish with humility and love. I loved him. May his memory be eternal.