10 July 2017

(In)vested interests

Symbol of despotism or of harmony?

All too sadly for those Orthodox thinkers (Pahman, Jensen, Jenkins et al.) who still labour under the delusion that there is any real daylight between Orthodox social thought and their favoured ideology of libertarianism, their own ideological forebear seems to have disagreed with them quite strongly. Here is John Dalberg-Acton, Baron Acton, on how the Investiture Controversies – themselves traceable back to the ‘reform’ movement which led directly to the Great Schism – provided the basis for an ideology of sæcular liberty. Note carefully how he singles out Byzantium and Moscow, both of which promoted symphonía as the ideal toward which both church and state should strive, as examples of church-state collusion or ‘despotism’, which (in his view) quashed the development of ‘civil liberty’:
The only influence capable of resisting the feudal hierarchy was the ecclesiastical hierarchy; and they came into collision, when the process of feudalism threatened the independence of the Church by subjecting the prelates severally to that form of personal dependence on the kings which was peculiar to the Teutonic state.

To that conflict of four hundred years we owe the rise of civil liberty. If the Church had continued to buttress the thrones of the king whom it anointed, or if the struggle had terminated speedily in an undivided victory, all Europe would have sunk down under a Byzantine or Muscovite despotism. For the aim of both contending parties was absolute authority. But although liberty was not the end for which they strove, it was the means by which the temporal and the spiritual power called the nations to their aid.
Now, it’s necessary to make some distinctions, and to defend even the historical, Byzantine-Muscovite political œconomy from Acton’s charge of ‘despotism’. A number of Orthodox scholars (including Fr. Stanley Harakas himself, who popularised for an English-speaking Orthodox audience the political ideal of symphonía) do actually consider the concept and its associated practices compatible with a number of different political ‘forms’, up to and including voter engagement with the modern sæcular democracy which was in fact birthed by the Investiture Controversies. Even if sæcularism (defined as either a hostile or an amicable separation of church and state) is not the preferred model in Orthodox political theology, Orthodox social thinking does not forbid or discourage lay believers from political engagement. (We aren’t quite Anabaptists on that score; probably somewhere between the Anabaptists and the postliberal Protestants.)

For example: the Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church explicitly acknowledges and endorses the ideal of symphonía:
The Orthodox tradition has developed an explicit ideal of church-state relations. Since church-state relations are two-way traffic, the above-mentioned ideal could emerge in history only in a state that recognises the Orthodox Church as the greatest people’s shrine, in other words, only in an Orthodox state.

Attempts to work out this form were undertaken in Byzantium, where the principles of church-state relations were expressed in the canons and the laws of the empire and were reflected in patristic writings. In their totality these principles were described as symphony between church and state. It is essentially co-operation, mutual support and mutual responsibility without one’s side intruding into the exclusive domain of the other.

However, similarly to Fr. Stanley Harakas, the Russian Orthodox Church takes a broad view of how this ideal works in practice. The Russian Church, in the same breath as it acknowledges symphony as a desirable ideal, disobliges a perfectionist or overly-idealist interpretation in its emphasis on the symphonic relationship between church and state. Indeed, it makes a point of providing practical and constructive guidelines for how the Church and its members should comport themselves in the political life of a non-Orthodox, sæcular or even non-Christian state – as though symphonía were the image of a city-in-speech, the Platonic ideal of the marriage of philosophy (or theology) with politics, and the sundry régimes in their varying degrees of sæcularism, papocæsarism or cæsaropapism are merely distortions of that ideal. Within these régimes the participation of the Orthodox faithful is possible, but perhaps not perfectly so. (Much of sections III and V of the Basis take as their theme the acceptable forms and the limits of Orthodox participation in politics: for example, clergy may vote but may not stand for public office; laity may stand for public office but may not claim to represent the plenitude of the Faith within those offices.) The document is therefore quite realist in a philosophical sense. But the Basis also makes it clear that the hostile separation of Moses from Aaron is something to be lamented.

Even this subtler and more variegated view of the Orthodox Church, though, is one which Baron Acton himself has inverted almost perfectly. The traditional Orthodox view is of church-state cooperation in a state of grace and harmony from which the various other régimes fall short. But for Baron Acton, the various papocæsarist and cæsaropapist struggles between Church and princes become instead the vehicle for progressively greater stages of liberation, culminating in a minimal state and a private religion bereft of substantive public claims on its adherents. Rather than being partners in the protection and salvation of mankind within a fallen reality subject to death, Church and state are for Acton obstacles, shackles to be removed from the individual – and this, indeed, points us back to how the liberal anthropology, broadly considered, substantively differs from the anthropology of the Church. Acton’s vision of the human political condition is one which the Church in its depth has historically never shared and never countenanced. The very tradition itself, going back to the sainted Emperors Constantine and Justinian, stands agonal to and irreconcilable with the libertarian political project.

Allow me one caveat. I am not saying that individual Orthodox people who happen to hold libertarian views, even those who work for the Acton Institute, are by that fact alone dishonest or bad Christians. I am sure – positive, in fact – that there are libertarian Orthodox Christians who are far better at following Christ and far nearer the Kingdom of God than I am. What I am saying, however, is that the ideology of libertarianism, in this case as articulated by Baron Acton, is fundamentally at odds with Orthodox political theology. When we get further into the particulars of libertarian thinking, particularly as it concerns usury, wages and the wealth gap, labour unions and the idea of national or communal sin, the contrast between libertarian and Orthodox social thinking, on levels ranging from deep anthropology to nitty-gritty œconomics, is thrown into even sharper relief.

No comments:

Post a Comment