23 June 2009

An Eastern thinker's view of Western Christianity

I confess to being a complete tenderfoot when it comes to philosophy that comes from outside the Continental and early Analytical traditions, and even more of one when it comes to understanding Eastern Orthodoxy. To begin rectifying my ignorance (an utterly reprehensible one given where I am going to be serving for the next two years), I introduced myself to the thought of Nikolay Aleksandrovich Berdyaev (Николай Александрович Бердяев) through one of the only books our library system had by him, The Russian Revolution - which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was an education into Russian history through a religious perspective which was treated somewhat cursorily by the history classes I took at K College - it examined Russian political radicalism and Bolshevism as phenomena which were, at heart, fundamentally religious, with pedigrees in the Raskol schism of the late 1600's, and began thoroughly critiquing the whole of Marxist thought as though it were in itself a religious argument. The case Berdyaev made was strong and convincing - though militantly atheistic, Communism engaged the creative energies of the Russian intelligentsia and inspired the same kind of zeal as the religious Great Awakenings did in the US during the formative years of our history. As Berdyaev viewed it, Communism organised itself around dogmas, had sacraments and a clergy, even espoused an eschatology (though they called it 'the Revolution') and a belief in a Messianic class ('the proletariat').

Though highly critical of the internal inconsistencies of Communism and the way in which it stifled existential creativity, Berdyaev saw the rise of Communism itself as a judgment upon Christendom, which had failed to capture the public's imagination and creative energies and which had failed to fulfil its promises of sowing the seeds of social justice and economic equality, to culminate in the harvest of a Kingdom of Heaven. One wonders, when Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his speech on the Vietnam War that:

[C]ommunism is a judgement against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when "every valley shall be exalted, and every moutain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain"

he was hearkening back to Berdyaev's criticism of Russian Christianity, or whether he had simply come to the same page from another direction.

So, with great interest, I read the translation of Berdyaev's essay 'Unifying Christians of the East and West'. As much as The Russian Revolution had inspired me to delve deeper, 'Unifying Christians' challenged me. Coming from a Protestant Christian background with a fiercely individualistic and egalitarian streak born of the Teutonic temperament (a temperament which made Kierkegaard so appealing to me), Berdyaev's essay needled me to reconsider some of my basic presuppositions of what being Christian really meant.

Berdyaev did begin his essay showing appreciation for the diversity within Christian thought, but no sooner was this done than he began diagnosing the cultural fractures in the Christian project. He saw the Western (Catholic) Church as the logical heir to the demands of empire starting with the fall of Rome, and the result was a reflection of Imperial ways of believing and doing within the Catholic Church itself. The doing was in the clear hierarchies and highly regimented formal structure of the priesthood, and in 'a striving after power upon the earth, after deeds in history'. The believing was in Augustinian, later Thomist doctrine, which strove after proof and solid logic, the 'arming of thinking for battle, defense and attack'.

At first, I was a bit stunned by this characterisation of Western Christianity. I'm certainly no Thomist, and as I said before my Christianity has informed my belief in egalitarian social and economic praxis - and I come out of this tradition of 'Western Christianity'. But at the same time, Berdyaev makes some points about Western Christendom which strike quite near to home. The social Gospel which I hold dear, coming out of this Germanic Protestantism, though it is a reaction to power politics and spiritual and economic exploitation, still makes some of the same assumptions as the Roman Catholic Church about what being Christian truly means. At some level, even the Quakers, the Mennonites, the entire social justice movement within American Christianity are still 'striving after deeds in history'; we still have this very Western, very Roman conceit that we must be the ones who will change (and save!) the world.

Berdyaev, though he is far from denying the responsibility of Christians for their project of social and economic justice, rather gently reproves our cultural hubris. Berdyaev insists that the Orthodox way, the contemplative emphasis on potentiality, can be more freeing to the creative spirit than the Western insistence on action, on the dynamic exercise of political power in history. In terms of what this means for ecumenism, I read that he sees the West as too eager to break ground in political treaties, to have something actual and politically relevant to show for our efforts; he insists that this is an Unrealistic Expectation. Berdyaev sees ecumenism as a worthy goal, but it is something that has to be done 'vertically' (in organically cultivating love, empathy and understanding between faith communities) rather than 'horizontally' (in brokering deals and making treaties on an abstracted political level).

In Berdyaev's view, the West (at its very best) still sees itself at the Crucifixion, as taking the Cross alongside our Saviour up to Golgotha; the East tends to spend more of its time and creative energy staring at the empty tomb, contemplating the mystery of the Resurrection. I think a better analogy - and I hope Berdyaev would agree, given his imagery of tilling 'spiritual soil' in his last paragraph - would use St Mark 4:26-29:

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

Maybe we in the West need to beware of being too eager to reach for the sickle. As well as setting before us the task of sowing the seed, Mark holds for us a promise. The earth produces of itself, gradually: the stalk rising of itself, followed by the head budding of itself, followed by the grain ripening of itself. It's a hard lesson, particularly for someone like me - an AmeriCorps, soon-to-be Peace Corps volunteer who wants to see the seed he's scattering bear fruit, who wants to know what he is doing is worthwhile, who wants to strive after deeds in history. It is part of our AmeriCorps mission - 'getting things done for America'. But perhaps Berdyaev is right - maybe we do need to take our hands, and our minds, off the sickle, and wait until the grain is ripe.

It is something to consider as I leave AmeriCorps and join Peace Corps.

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