29 June 2023

An aphoristic reflection

What God asks of us is so simple. To love Him, and to love our neighbour.

How easy the yoke! How light the burden!

Yet to fulfil these commandments is the work of a lifetime.

23 June 2023

The synodal religious type: two perspectives

There is also a path that seeks a genuinely religious relation to people, that does not want either a humanistic simplification of human relations or an ascetic disdain of them...
We are called to oppose the mystery of authentic human communion to all false relations among people. This is the only path on which Christ’s love can live; moreover, this is the only path of life--outside it is death. Death in the fire and ashes of various hatreds that corrode modern mankind, class, national, and race hatreds, the godless and giftless death of cool, uncreative, imitative, essentially secular democracy.

- St Maria (Skobtsova), ‘The Second Gospel Commandment’
There is much that alarms me on this side of the front [the West]. I look everywhere and nowhere do I find anything that would point to the possibility of any breakthrough from material life to eternity. Occasionally we come across a very uncertain expression of extremely general and diffused idealistic hopes, somewhat in the style of Dostoevsky’s ‘sympathy with everything beautiful and lofty’--but it is all rather vague. They say: ‘We’re defending the right cause, we’re fighting for the liberation of national minorities, or for the federal organisation of Europe, or for democracy.’

These things are not enough. Test yourselves.

Imagine that you must immediately give your life for one of these goals of struggle. Try to imagine a real death. And you will understand that your own life, however modestly you may evaluate its significance, is in some ultimate metaphysical sense greater than any [of these things]...

- St Maria (Skobtsova), ‘Insight in Wartime’
Rereading Saint Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris’s Essential Writings, I find there is much to discomfort and disturb readers of every political persuasion; not least the persuasion which currently considers itself ‘left-liberal’. Saint Maria’s attitude toward secular humanism and toward political democracy, and toward that constellation of values which currently carries the banner of the European Union, is decidedly negative, even harsh. Again and again throughout her writings she considers bourgeois democracy and its cultural trappings to be nothing but pale, unsatisfactory facsimiles of what Christian love should look like in the public sphere. This places her squarely at odds with contemporary authors like Aristotle Papanikolaou, and affiliated outlets like Public Orthodoxy.

Her strivings toward a theopolitical ‘synthesis’, for which the touchstones to which she keeps returning for them remain Vladimir Solovyov, Aleksei Khomyakov and Fyodor Dostoevsky, were never about reconciling Orthodox Christianity to any purely secular ideal of political life, even as these strivings retained, as they did to the very end of her life, some of their earlier socialist, pro-labour character!

Would she have embraced Putin, as Solzhenitsyn did? It is difficult to tell, and in any event, given all that has happened since the Second World War, it is an unfair question to ask. But on the other hand, given what she wrote during that time, it is supremely difficult to imagine that Saint Maria would take the same path of acquiescence to the spirit of the age, that too many Orthodox Christians in Western Europe and America have done. Even more so when one considers that toward the end of her life, Saint Maria of Paris evinced greater and greater pity and sympathy upon her own people, who were bearing the brunt of the Nazi attack. According to her friend and close collaborator Nikolai Berdyaev: ‘she had a passionate love’--even an ‘exceptional love’--‘for Russia and for the Russian people; in the final period of her life, the period of the War, she assumed a tone of passionate patriotism which took on an extreme form’. That patriotism, and the tenor thereof, may be seen in quotes such as this one:
It is hard for us Russians. Perhaps never before has history created such tangled and contradictory situations as we now find ourselves in. We may say that, whatever turn things took, under whatever circumstances, we always got hit on the head in passing.

- St Maria (Skobtsova), ‘Insight in Wartime’
It is hard to see such sympathy as ‘extreme’, as Berdyaev does; if there is an extremity to it, it is an extremity of empathy, with which there can be little objection. But it is this Russian patriotism, a patriotism of sympathy-in-suffering, which colours Saint Maria’s treatment of the other ‘types’ of spirituality she identifies, first in her essay ‘A Justification of Pharisaism’ and secondly in her essay ‘Types of Religious Life’. Saint Maria takes the view, an understandable view in the wake of the October Revolution, that the typical religious stance of the white émigré, with its emphasis on a dead autocracy and a reliance on modes of spirituality that were better-suited to a bureaucratic state or noble circles which no longer existed in any meaningful form, was ultimately doomed:
There is no doubt but that on the historical plane the synodal period has come to an end with no possibility of return; there is no basis for assuming that the psychology which it engendered can survive it for long. In this sense it is not important how we assess such a religious type. Only one thing is important: without a doubt it is dying and has no future. The future challenges the Church with complex, new and crucial problems.

- St Maria (Skobtsova), ‘Types of Religious Life’
But despite this harsh, Ezri-like assessment of the synodal religious type, Saint Maria is by no means lacking in sympathy toward it. It comes on the tail end of her having praised, albeit in highly qualified terms, the ordered life which it protected, the traditions which it governed, and the wondrous art and architecture which it inspired. And in her earlier essay, ‘A Justification of Pharisaism’, although she distinctly blames the failures of the synodal type of religiosity with the ‘falling-away’ of the intelligentsia and the forces of revolution that were unleashed on the country, she also says that it is not for the philistine, the one without religious or moral feeling, to attack the synodalists who preserved the treasures of Christianity through times of great suffering and deprivation. And she concludes, poignantly: ‘Yet the Church of that period also had her righteous men.’

It was in light of going back to read Saint Maria’s Essential Writings that I picked up Fr John (Strickland)’s book on The Making of Holy Russia. Saint Maria proclaims the doom of this particular type of religious life, and pronounces it exhausted of its creative forces; what Fr John does, is he goes back and examines those creative forces themselves, which were evident in the propagators of the synodal religious type, the champions of autocracy and Russian Orthodox patriotism in the times before the October Revolution. Fr John ultimately holds up the same two sides of the coin that Saint Maria does: both the sympathy for it and the evidence of its failures. But in Fr John’s treatment of the synodal type of religious life, we get to observe those forces in greater detail, in greater historical specificity, than we do in Saint Maria’s rather more typological, artistic (in the sense of painting a portrait rather than taking a photograph) overview of the same. In Fr John’s book we get to see specific figures, thinkers and speakers emerge, on both the reformist and on the conservative side of that religious type.

Fr John speaks of Orthodox patriotism in Russia in two distinct phases. The first, largely corresponding to the rule of Tsar Aleksandr III and the early portion of the rule of Tsar St Nikolai II, is one in which the full creative energies of Orthodox patriotism are bent on both the ‘internal mission’ of the Church (to Russia’s lukewarm-to-apostate intellectual and noble classes) and on the ‘external mission’ (somewhat misleadingly so called, as it pertains to missionary activities among the Russian Empire’s non-Russian ethnic minorities). The task of crafting a theology of love of homeland, and love of the people therein, in fact required a great deal of creative energy and endeavour; especially given that Russia’s Slavophil inheritance rendered most clergymen of the time especially sceptical of the Western-style nation-state and the revolutionary secular mass-political ideology that accompanied it.

And so you see in The Making of Holy Russia a large number of different and disparate voices adding to this conversation, ranging from staid reactionary critics of progress such as Archbishop Nikanor (Brovkovich) of Odessa and Archpriest John (Vostorgov), to socialists such as Archpriest Dr Pavel (Svetlov). This is in a time, under Tsar Aleksandr III when there was already articulated an ideological doctrine of Official Nationality, the questions of how the Church with its universal mission and imperatives could be reconciled with duties to the state and (the growing sense) to the people, began being explored with an acute intensity of interest. However, there was a strong sense during this period that State and Church were indeed in harmony, and that the Tsar could be trusted to be an Apostolic statesman in the mould of St Constantine or St Vladimir.

There was something of a crisis among these adherents to Russian Orthodox patriotism when Tsar Nikolai II began calling for a degree of religious freedom and official sanction to followers of other faiths in the Empire, beginning in 1902. He issued several edicts which seemed to hint at a desire for greater religious toleration in the Russian Empire, which rather disturbed Orthodox patriots such as Archpriest John (Vostorgov). In 1905, after the events of 22 January, Tsar Nikolai II made good on these promises with his Paschal Edict making religious toleration a policy which held throughout the Empire. This precipitated something of a crisis of conscience among Russian Orthodox patriots, who were suddenly in the uncomfortable position of attempting to uphold an autocracy which was no longer keeping up its ‘end of the bargain’ to support the Church. One bone of particular contention in this matter regarded the Old Believers, who (as Fr John notes) had in many ways a more convincing claim to represent the ‘national faith’ of the Russian people than the synodal Church did.

This led to Orthodox churchmen taking several different paths. One path was into the arms of the ‘patriotic unions’, or Black Hundreds. This was very much a minority option, as most of the Orthodox clergy regarded these unions as revolutionary in temperament, and ‘pagan’ in their understanding of nationality. (It is worthy of note that the term ‘pagan’ in Russian, языческий connotes a connection to language as a marker of ethnic belonging.) Additionally, Orthodox clerics who were involved in the ‘external mission’ openly abhorred the Black Hundreds’ hostility to the inorodtsy as an impediment precisely to that mission. Among the Orthodox figures who did approach the Black Hundreds, none of them did so uncritically. Here Fr John highlights the examples of Archbishop Antonii (Khrapovitskii), whose objections to the worst forms of nationalism are a matter of public record, Archpriest John (Vostorgov) and lay Orthodox publicist Vladimir Skvortsov. Even though the latter two figures did occasionally lapse into ethno-nationalism of the type represented by the ‘patriotic unions’, on the whole these three attempted to soften and convert the pagan ethno-nationalist revolutionism of the Black Hundreds into something more recognisably Christian.

Another approach was taken by Orthodox intellectuals and philosophers, of whom Fr John highlights Vladimir Solovyov, Fr Sergei (Bulgakov) and the artist Mikhail Nesterov. These three figures, as a general tendency, attempted to articulate and promote a form of Russian Orthodox patriotism that was civic and plurinational rather than ethnic, embracing suffering rather than embracing revolutionism, and approaching social and economic problems with a greater urgency of need than approaching military ones. Both the religious idealism of Solovyov, which was later embraced and tempered by Fr Sergei, and the artistic hallowing of the Russian wilderness and the ‘feminine’ genius of the national Russian saints which was exposited by Nesterov, provided an alternative understanding of Russian Orthodox patriotism. This is the more radical understanding which was picked up by Saint Maria of Paris in her later years; Saint Maria was a close friend of Fr Sergei (Bulgakov), and drew explicitly on the thought of Vladimir Solovyov in her intellectual life.

Fr John bookends his discussion of Russian Orthodox patriotism of the ‘synodal’ type with two public Orthodox commemorations: that of the glorification of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, and that of the glorification of Patriarch St Ermogen of Moscow. In his comparison and contrast of these two commemorations, the first one being much more public and commented-upon than the latter, with the latter courting some controversy as a result of the fractured state of Orthodox patriotism at the time. (For example, the Old Believers, using their newfound freedom of the press, put forward a case that St Ermogen was in fact the last true representative of the Old Belief before the Petrine and Nikonian reforms distorted the witness of the official Church.) At the same time, though, Fr John notes that despite the failures (again in agreement with St Maria) of the synodalists to articulate a coherent vision of their understanding of the links between the universal Church and the Russian people, there was significant creative energy that went into the endeavour.

This is a necessary step, I think, to understanding the situation that Russia finds itself in now. Again, they find themselves in a tangled and contradictory circumstance in which their heads are getting hit in passing. They find themselves the target of superpower posturing and encroachment, they find their brethren in Donbass, Crimea, Kherson and Zaporozh’e under threat, they find themselves backed into an intolerable situation. And the Russian Orthodox Church, under Patriarch Kirill, now finds itself once again having to walk a tightrope between being a national Church with deep ties to the Russian state, and an international / post-Imperial Church with flocks of many different ethnic groups in numerous countries in the former Soviet lands. This is a situation which calls for understanding and informed criticism rather than the mere blind opprobrium and self-satisfied sententious sermonising in which Western Christians (including Orthodox Christians living in the West) are now wont to indulge.

14 June 2023

Fr Andrei Tkachev: interviews on socialism

Fr Andrei Tkachev, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church with a notable and high-profile public presence, has given two noteworthy interviews which touch on the topics of political economy. In this one, he is answering a question from economist Mair Bek about socialist economics (as divorced from socialism as a comprehensive doctrine) and also about secularisation. Intriguingly, although Fr Andrei is rather unsympathetic to secularism, his attitude toward socialist economics is much more nuanced. It is to be borne in mind from the outset that Fr Andrei has the exact same critiques of the early Bolshevik terror and of communism that practically every single Orthodox thinker has had since that time and even before (and he is of course equally and likewise critical of both liberalism and nationalism, on the basis that all three set up human concepts and worship them idolatrously as gods). However, listen to what he has to say here (and turn on the English auto-translation of the CC as needed):

Of particular interest to me is how Fr Andrei warns precisely against socialism as a comprehensive doctrine, but evidently believes that one ‘can and should’ adopt ‘the best of all social teachings which have justified themselves’ from the socialist period. Even more interesting, is that he cites China as an example to follow, not just Sweden and not just ancient Greece! It makes me wonder if he is simply tossing China off as an off-the-cuff example, or if he is talking about Chinese antiquity, or if he is talking specifically about the Chinese model of social and economic organisation in the wake of Deng Xiaoping. Given the growing closeness between Russia and China over these past few years in particular, it makes me somewhat more sceptical of the first interpretation.

And then there is this interview, with Pravoslavie.Ru, in which Fr Andrei Tkachev in a much more decided and firm manner defended the Soviet Union, at least in its later post-Lenin and post-Trotsky phase, as a ‘beautiful country’ which encouraged high culture, literature and music and art, promoted literacy, upheld positive social norms and essentially prepared the ground for a new flourishing of Christianity. This is a much more interesting perspective, as he is taking the post-ideological bend of the late Soviet period and asserting it as a kind of ‘altar to an unknown God’. Again, this is a particularly fascinating perspective for me to hear, as this is a priest whom we in the US would consider ‘Generation X’, that is to say precisely that he was raised in the late Soviet Union and has a first-hand degree of insight into what those years were like.

Anyway, some real wisdom and worthwhile economic insights in the public addresses of Fr Andrei. Hopefully more people listen, who are in a position to take counsel from him.

02 June 2023

‘Humble Month’?

I have seen some Orthodox Christians recently begin talking about the possibility of making June ‘Humility Month’ or ‘Humble Month’. The idea is that, as the secular culture around us is celebrating gay pride (including the advocates of secular culture from the sadly predictable usual quarters), we should seek to exalt instead the virtue of humility as an antidote to pride of all kinds. Speaking as an Orthodox Christian layman, I’m here to say that ‘Humble Month’ is a bad idea… but not for the reasons you might think.

Two days from now, in the Orthodox Church, we will celebrate the feast of the fullness of the revelation of the Holy Spirit in history. We will celebrate the Last and Great Day, the dawning of the great fire, the holy fire which descended upon the heads of the Apostles as they gathered together ‘in one place’, in the Cenacle at Jerusalem. It is the last of the great feasts in the Church, and it marks the historical beginning of the Church in the world.

Let us be absolutely clear about the meaning of this feast. It is a day upon which the Gospel of salvation went forth by grace into the hearing of all peoples. A new word, indeed the Word of Truth, was proclaimed even in the tongues of the most despised barbarians.

The Book of Acts mentions several nations which heard this word in their own native language: Parthians and Medes (speakers of Iranian languages); Elamites (speakers of an extinct language isolate); Mesopotamians (speakers of Aramaic, with Akkadian still in liturgical use); Judæa (Aramaic and Hebrew); Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia Minor (dialects of Greek); Phrygia (Phrygian); Pamphylia (Greek); Egypt (Coptic); Libya (Tamahaq, Greek and Latin); Rome (Latin); Crete (Greek); and Arabia (Arabic). These languages were all explicitly sanctified in Scripture by the Holy Spirit. And even those which were not explicitly sanctified here were blessed in the Great Commission. (As a result, it makes better sense, following the logic of Pentecost, for Orthodox Christians to celebrate June as Indigenous History Month the way they do in Canada. The languages of those who were here first are similarly blessed. But I digress.)

The fire that descended upon the Apostles at Pentecost was not a destroying fire. It was not the fire that consumes. It was the same as the fire that Moses beheld in the Burning Bush—a fire which illumines, is the essence of creativity. This is the fire of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost calls us to a creative and self-giving relationship to the world. What better evidence could there be of this, than of the Word being preached in the tongues of all the nations present in Jerusalem? It ought to go without saying, though, that Pentecost also calls us to be humble. As Saint John of Kronstadt said: ‘The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, who fills the whole universe, passes through all believing, meek, humble, good, and simple human souls, dwelling in them, vivifying and strengthening them.’ Pride has no place at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit finds no place to dwell in those who are filled up with themselves, their own ‘me’-ness.

So ‘Humility Month’ gets at least this one thing—and it is quite an important thing—right. Humility before the Holy Spirit is very much needful; without it, we are nothing. On the other hand, though, the whole ‘Humility Month’ business strikes me as a purely reactive posture. It takes as primary, not the witness of the Orthodox Calendar and the Liturgical cycle ordained by the power of the Holy Spirit… but instead the imitative liturgics of the surrounding secular culture. It bases its witness not on Pentecost, but on an evil or a privation to be opposed. This is, to put it bluntly, almost an anti-Pentecost approach.

If such reaction is at times a deep and understandable temptation in an age where identity politics and ‘woke’-ism seem to have gone completely amok, we should nonetheless understand the impulse as temptation, as a passion in the Patristic sense. Orthodox Christians should certainly not strive to mimic the culture in opposition—in other words, to posture as a set-theoretical not-X to the culture’s X. There is so much that is truly good, that is original in the Orthodox culture—what I should say is, the Orthodox cultures that were sanctified at Pentecost, be they Greek, Arabic, African, Persian, Syriac, Latin, or any of the cultures that were baptised afterward—that there should be no need for us to make a commemorative ‘Month’ that is simply the stated opposite of what a weak, shallow and exhausted consumerist culture finds ‘good’.

Let us be truly humble, then, if that is our aim. Let us proclaim the Pentecost in whatever language we can find to hand—surely that language will by no means exhaust the Holy Spirit’s glory. Let us be creative and self-giving as the Apostles were then. Let us make more than a Month of it, for the Pentecost is the fiftieth day, the fullness of time in the new creation. Let us be proclaimers of Christ Risen and Ascended. Let us be seekers of the Father’s abundant mercies. Let us be witnesses of the Holy Spirit’s work in the world.