01 February 2017

Thedeship, state and idolatry

One of the reasons that Eastern Orthodoxy is so attractive, is that its lived history invalidates all the great idolatries of the modern age. This holds true for the two great idolatries of the modern Left: Marxism (which, as numerous Christian thinkers have pointed out, is actually a chiliastic and materialist heresy) and postmodernism-constructivism (with its dæmonic urge to demolish and deconstruct what is true). But it also holds true for the several great idolatries before which the modern Right invariably bows: capitalism, fundamentalism, technocracy and nationalism.

The incompatibility of the truths of Orthodox anthropology and metaphysics with capitalist praxis has been well-documented and explored in other places: in short, human beings in Orthodox teaching are made for communion with each other and with God, and not for separation into constellations of disembodied wills and negative rights; and (Actonite fantasies aside) the œconomic ramifications of this teaching set the face of Orthodoxy, as it were, solidly against capitalism. Read in an open spirit, the Fathers of the Church were not particularly great fans of the idea of private property – accepting it as, at best, a necessary evil in a fallen world; and at worst, one of the great stumbling blocks to salvation. Still less were they fans of the idea that acquisition of material wealth was in itself virtuous or praiseworthy.

Likewise with fundamentalism and technocracy. The Orthodox Church has been dead-set from its inception against the idea of sola scriptura, instead holding that Scripture is given authority and life only within its rooted context of living and lived Tradition. This is a needed witness against those (even within the Church itself!) who would point to a dead letter, uprooted from all its context of pastoral oikonomía, as the sine qua non of Christian praxis. And the idea that human salvation can be attained in a secular way, by technical advancement and eugenics (one of the more grotesque conceits of the neoreactionary movement, and one which CS Lewis rightly recognised as dæmonic) is opposed strongly by the Orthodox teachings of sobornost’ and theosis. Human beings are saved through communion with each other, even and especially with the broken ones; and they are saved through participating together in the energies of God.

But it’s nationalism I want to focus on here.

It is important to note, over and over again, that Orthodox teaching has historically considered nation and state as separate concerns. This is owing, to a large degree, to its long association with the Eastern Roman Empire, and the distinction that needed to be drawn between the citizen as Rhōmaios (a political description, a ‘Romanity’ defined as subjection to the Emperor) and as Graikós (a linguistic description, a belonging to a thede with roots in earlier classical Antiquity). Though in its declining years the two came to be more conflated, in the Eastern Roman Empire one did not have to be ethnically or linguistically Greek to be a ‘Roman’! Syrians, Bulgars, Serbs and Dacians were all ‘Romans’, even though Greek was to them a second language. The Church had a close relationship to the State – expressed in the idea of sumphonía; and it had a close relationship to the thede through its tradition of preaching in the popular, common language. However – and this point deserves to be emphasised – the two relationships were separate and hierarchical in nature.

The disastrous, lamentable disintegration of the Eastern Roman Empire, however, and the opposition and cruelty to which the Turks subjected the Church and its subjects, created a situation whereby the Orthodox Church began to sympathise with (and allow itself to be used as a basis for) levelling, revolutionary movements of national liberation, which in secular logic conjoined the state with the idea of the nation in ways which were foreign to the classical mind of the Church. Although for contemporary purposes the Church was useful to the Byronic nationalist ‘liberator’, the identification of the state with the thede largely destroyed the monarchical principle that had held in place the layered, both-localist-and-cosmopolitan concept of ‘Romanity’, and in the process crowded out the Church from consideration. In the Empire, the Church served as the conciliar weft that could unite bickering and parochial ethnoi into a greater brotherhood, in a way the Emperor alone, with his ‘Roman’ dominion, could not do. In the secular-republican-nationalist era to follow, between the crowds screaming for Barabbas and the republican Pilates who rode to power amongst them, Jesus Christ and His Church would not find a place – except on Golgotha. Not socialists – no, not socialists; socialists, however wrongheadedly secular, at least have shades of the old brotherhood of Christian ‘Romanity’ left in them – but nationalists, for all their vaunted ‘right-ness’ as they march under their godless tricolours, will always, always be among the first to clamour for the crucifixion of a true Emperor!

And herein lies the rub. Just as nationalism and its sins will always be a temptation and stumbling-block for our separated Latin brethren on account of their doctrinal relationship to power during and after the Investiture Controversies, so it will always be a temptation and a stumbling-block for the Orthodox Christians on account of our history. And there are no greater victims of those sins, than those thedes who, like the Hebrews in the Exodus or in the Babylonian Exile, wander the deserts without a land and a state of their own. ‘Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head.’ Not only Jews, but even Orthodox thedes like the Gypsies and the Rusins, are exemplars of this. It is worthy of note – and it ought to be a matter for deep shame among us Orthodox – that Rusins, for all their closeness to the broader world of the Rus’ both Russian and Ukrainian, fared far better (both culturally and materially) under the non-nationalist, quasi-Catholic Czechoslovak government of Švehla (and later under the Slovak government of Fico, which recognises them as a minority), than they ever would under the nationalist, ostensibly-Orthodox Ukrainians, who continue to regard Rusins as simply backward ‘highlanders’ to be assimilated. For shame!

Loving your thede as your family, loving your neighbours, laying down your life for your friends as suggested by the Basis of the Social Concept – these things are all good and admirable. Having a thede, having kinship ties, being rooted to a particular community, is a good thing! But nationalism – as a revolutionary ideological tendency which kills monarchs, which confines religion to the realm of the private, which stokes enmities among thedes, which oppresses the poor – this is not an ideology which Orthodox people should abide. ‘It is contrary to Orthodox ethics to divide nations into the best and the worst and to belittle any ethnic or civic nation. Even more contrary to Orthodoxy are the teachings which put the nation in the place of God or reduce faith to one of the aspects of national self-awareness.

EDIT (2 February): Father Stephen Freeman has some profound thoughts in a similar direction on his own excellent blog, Glory to God for All Things; I might pick some nits with a couple of the historical readings (or perhaps not; I get the feeling his knowledge of history is far deeper than mine!), but I decidedly and emphatically agree with his conclusions. The modern nation-state is to be treated as a temporal convenience; it is not to be held aloft as the source of revealed truth.


  1. ^^^^This is what I have been saying for YEARS now. And what response do I get?
    "Culturual Marxist"
    "Who made you the racism police?"
    "You're just doing a witch hunt."
    "Stop stirring up the pot."

    No, you've said what needs to be said. Two thumbs way up from me.

  2. Welcome to the blog, Mr. Campbell, and thank you for the comment!

    Oh, I have gotten the ‘cultural Marxist’ and ‘liberal’ epithets more than once, even though I tend not to think very highly of either Marxists or liberals. But I have a decreasing store of patience for the sort of right-wingers and ‘reactionaries’ who embrace murderous, regicidal ideologies on the basis that they are ostensibly neither Marxist nor liberal.

  3. All well and good, but the final direction of liberalism (and whatever is left of the Left) in its political, economic and cultural is the erasing of all ethnic groups, all homelands, all thedes to use your term. Nothing less than a homogenised world condition, where there are no Russians, no Iranians, no Anglo-Saxons, just a universal man who looks alike in every respect.

    One of the more attractive aspects of the Russian imperial experience is that small ethnic nations have actually managed to preserve their identities within the Slavic imperium.

    1. The assertion that the final direction of liberalism is the final erasing of all ethnic groups is arrant nonsense. And a strawman.

      Have you never heard of Pierre Trudeau, former Canadian Prime Minister and father of Justin? He was left-lib and expressed the total opposite of erasing ethnic groups.

    2. That in this country we have created a society with the liberalism that the Americans failed to create, and established the social democracy that the Europeans failed to establish. All by abandoning notions of homogeneity and by having different kinds of people around. Not the American melting pot - a disaster. Not the forced togetherness of Europe - a disaster. But a cultural mosaic - making us the envy of the world over. All without violent revolution or dictatorship.

      And there is no reason why it has to limited to Canada only. It can be done elsewhere.

    3. That is very true about Canada, Mr. Campbell, and very much to Canada’s credit. I will be the last one to dispute it!

      But I would posit that the peaceable, pluriculturalist aspects of Canadian civic life have more to do with the Family Compact and the spirit of compromise which ruled for a long time in Québec, than they do with the liberalising Trudeaus or the Pearsons (who sought to subject Canada to American military imperium by hosting our nuclear warheads).

    4. No, simply because Canada was established as an acknowledgement that The Family Compact was irresponsible colonial government that provoked the 1837 Rebellions. That was the whole point of Lord Durham's report on the 1837 Rebellion, which became the basis of the 1867 North America Act. Which was the beginning of Canada. That Canada is a confederation.

      The contribution of Pearson and Trudeau was an undoing of an essential flaw of Durham's recommendation. Lord Durham wrongly thought that Canada's problems would be solved if the French were assimilated as English speaking and Protestant. Pearson and Trudeau undid this. Which means that Quebec can be Quebec in a confederation. The unfinished project being to allow the Natives to be our equals. Still working that one out.

  4. Welcome to the blog, Colonel Blimp! Thanks for the comment.

    Here is the thing to understand. I am decidedly not a fan of the levelling of the market, of globalism, of rootless cosmopolitanism, of the lowest-common-denominator homogeneity of capitalist consumption. But the point is that nationalism itself has historically been - and continues to be - a driver of this tendency! Nationalism is a form of liberal mass politics: only, a liberal mass politics of the ‘right’ rather than the ‘left’.

    I am not against people having and maintaining communities based on language or common ancestry, as a rule. But, as with the feminists (who say that if you favour equality of the sexes you must be a feminist, but then go on to assume all sorts of other ethical and political commitments which many who fall under that definition do not share) there is a motte-and-bailey fallacy at play with the nationalists.

    They claim to be about loving the homeland and the care of neighbour. But then they introduce hatred of wanderers (Gypsies, for example). They spit on noblesse oblige. They attack the aristocracy. They flock to bourgeois businessmen to defend them. They care more about territorial disputes than about assuring a decent standard of living for their own kin.

    Russian nationalism, historically, has been a partial exception to this rule. But that is only on account of the humane, personalist Slavophil influence which kept these nationalists from adopting capitalism, turning against the Tsar and attacking minorities (and even then, Jews were not always exempt). Nowadays, though? You think Navalny, or the LDPR, or elements even further to the right, will gladly allow a Romanov to rule them?