04 May 2016

Defending Russian Orthodoxy as Orthodox and as Russian

It so happened this year that our bright and glorious Pascha fell on 1 May. Both on the Orthodox right and on the secular left, this proved an occasion for some chest-thumping and articulation that one side or the other deserved to triumph. However, for those of us on the crunchy Orthodox left (such as Fr Dcn Aaron at Logismoi, and yours truly), the juxtaposition was just too good to pass up, and we wrote in defence of both, the lesser celebration in the resplendent light of the greater. Indeed, Fr Dcn Aaron made the following point:
Today is not only Pascha, but also Mayday. Let’s celebrate the 8-hour work day and other rights of workers! As the motto of my state has it, borrowing from Virgil, ‘Labor omnia vincit.’
Which I then followed up with:
Celebrating the two together is not only not contradictory, but indeed makes perfect sense.

Christ perfectly kept the Sabbath having rested his earthly body on Holy Saturday, and tore down the gates of Hell on the bright and glorious Sunday following. It is therefore meet and right, and perfectly in keeping with the theology of the Incarnation, that workers should likewise defend their rights to both rest and worship.
To expand on this point, it is indeed with reference to the Incarnational reality of Christ’s earthly mission, and His reference to both agrarian and artisanal trades in His parables, that the social teaching of the Russian Orthodox Church (not dissimilarly from Catholic social teaching, in point of fact) explicitly promotes and champions the rights of workers to a just share of the fruits of their labour, to decent working conditions, to freedom from oppression. In advocating for an eight-hour workday remunerated at what were then ten-hour rates, the activists in Chicago who began the Haymarket affair were seeking to secure all three. (And before the objection is raised, the Haymarket activists themselves were not even necessarily Marxist, but represented a broad contingent of the labour left.) As a result of the Orthodox social teaching even in its nascent form, it is a secret which deserves not to be so well-kept that the Orthodox hierarchy, Russian as well as Greek, falls consistently to the left of the Orthodox laity on economic matters, and well to the left of the American Orthodox laity in particular.

So who could possibly object to the fact that Orthodox believers are keeping May Day celebrations? Well, certain Polish Latins who apparently get their jollies spending holidays they do not celebrate dumping on people who do, for one.

I have discussed both my own complicated relationship with nationalism, and the peculiar Orthodox orientation (pun intended) regarding nation and state as deserving of distinct relationships with the Church and with each other, at length before. Artur Rosman is wrong, of course, and he argues in that vulgar way which is sadly all too common, comparing the very worst (as he sees it) of Orthodox praxis with the very best of Latin theoria in a way which conveniently elides the virulent and murderously racist forms which Latin, Catholic nationalism has been known to take in, for example, Croatia, Ukraine, Hungary, Lithuania. (By way of contrast, for all the anti-Semitic noises which issued from that country prior to the war, both the Serbian Church and the Serbian people resisted the Nazis and aided the Jews to far greater effect than any other nation in the region.) But even more so, there is a fascinating kind of psychological and philosophical projection Rosman engages in, which gets even the Orthodox theoria itself very badly wrong. Indeed, it’s little wonder he reads Nikolai Berdyaev – a French-Ukrainian, an anti-imperialist, a committed anarchist and, for all his Slavophilia, as often a sceptic as a supporter of Russian nationalism – so badly, to the point where one wonders whether in fact he’s read The Russian Idea at all.

As I have stated before, the Orthodox theoria – unlike the Latin one – separates out the nation from the state and the Church’s relationship with each. It does not do so, pace Berdyaev, for anarchist reasons – though when it comes to the (wholly-Western) Westphalian concept of the nation-state, it is relatively easy to see why he can and does interpret it so. Having been the state religion of a multi-ethnic (ergo, multi-national) Eastern Roman Empire, in fact, there are perhaps historical, prudential reasons for the Orthodox orientation here. Be that as it may, Orthodox social teaching does encourage both obedience to the state and an active and loving loyalty to the narod; this is the half-truth that Rosman shows. But it does so in a way that separates the two, that situates the Church between the two, and places strong conditions on each.

It’s crucial to understand the way in which the theological differentiations between East and West have worked themselves out historically. In the West, the one-dimensional structure of the Trinity promoted by the late-mediæval hierarchs of Rome, with the Father superior to the Son, and both superior to the Spirit, bolstered in practice the creation of an ecclesiastical feudal state, absolute in authority and universal in jurisdiction, that in theory stood superior to all earthly kingdoms. In practice, however, the butting of heads between earthly princes and the heavenly-earthly prince in Rome over the appointment of bishops, led directly to the Investiture Controversies. (Note that the investiture controversies have never gone away, and continue to be a problem, particularly for third-world Catholics.)

On the other hand, say what you will about the Byzantine (later Bulgarian, and Kievan-Russian, and Serbian) model of ecclesiology vis-à-vis statecraft. It has often enough been mired in intrigue and corruption, and in practice it did often shade over into an Erastian model of governance (as in Russia following Tsar Peter the Great). But it never truly resulted in an open power struggle between Emperor and Œcumenical Patriarch. This arrangement was only possible because church and state a.) had a collaborative relationship; but b.) understood the differences in their fundamental purpose. Cæsaropapism may have been a fact of life in the East in several of its epochs, but even under particularly autocratic emperors like Saint Justinian, it never managed to find a theological justification.

Thus, getting to the psychological-projection part of Rosman’s argument: is it indeed the Orthodox imagination that confuses the church with the state? Orthodox thinking may be accused of much, but not of providing any justification to its Patriarchs arrogating the temporal powers of state to themselves. On the other hand, the Latin Pope has literally been (and still is) a head-of-state, and has defended this state-of-affairs in doctrine. Indeed, much as I admire the present Pope, even he is not immune from behaving this way. This particular accusation is not one which can with justice be levelled at any Orthodox Patriarch, even a Russian one.

And from my own American standpoint, I have reason to be glad that the Russian patriarchs had the relationship they did with the Russian Tsarist state; Metropolitan Saint Filaret of Moscow and Tsar Aleksandr II together were one of the most important reasons that the American republic still exists, and was not destroyed by the Civil War – a Civil War, it should be noted, in which the Pope took the side of the rebels precisely in his capacity as the head of the Papal States.

I had some tidbits on the subject of China’s Christianisation that didn’t really tightly fit into this piece, so with the exception of the hint above that the investiture controversies are not over, I didn’t include them. I intend to get more in-depth into how the minefield of church-state relations (in both Christian East and West) has contributed to the development of political and theological orientalism in the West – with particular attention to the excellent writings of left-wing Chinese historian and social theorist Wang Hui, and China’s new traditionalists (particularly Jiang Qing and Fan Ruiping). The question of the political role of the Church – and the difference between Orthodox and Latin interpretations of that role – plays a central part in that particular development, and the fight between the Chinese government and the Papacy is in no small way related.


  1. I got frustrated a week ago by an article in the Catholic Herald complaining about the desire of the Vatican to reach a deal with the Chinese government. The writer, Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith thought that would be intolerable.

    I don't like the Chinese regime, but I think a deal with the Vatican would be in the interest of Chinese Catholics. China is not Poland; the government there will always have the upper hand over Christian churches.

  2. Well, it's interesting times in China, as the saying goes.

    We're seeing a point where the society is beginning to accommodate itself, on the one hand to traditional Chinese religion and folkways, and on the other hand to Christianity. Christianity is becoming more of a presence in China, and this is causing a high degree of consternation among cultural conservatives there (not entirely without reason).

    Thus, the Church does have to reach some kind of accommodation with traditional Chinese culture, and the Vatican has historically had periods where it's done better at this, and periods where it's done worse. (See, for example, the Rites Controversy.) But these are the sorts of discussions that still have to be had.