Category Archives: IC 66 2012

Content IC 66 2012

Recommended Reading- Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism by Geraldine Fagan

Believing in Russia: Religious Policy after Communism

by Geraldine Fagan
Routledge, 2013, 291 pp.
Reviewed by Fr. Stephen Headley

The altar of the tiny stone church of the parish of St. Stephen and St. Germain in Vezelay, France where Fr. Stephen serves as priest.
The altar of the tiny stone church of the parish
of St. Stephen and St. Germain in Vezelay,
France where Fr. Stephen serves as priest.

The following article is an expanded review, relevant to this issue’s theme, as we continue to also explore the Russian Church’s role in Russian society and politics.

The title of this new publication Believing in Russia captures the ambiguity the author is studying. On the one hand, there is the question of nationalism: How do politicians encourage belief in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union? On the other, the question of the plural expressions of religious belief as they have blossomed over the last twenty-five years: How does Russian society “share” common spaces in the Russian Federation? For general readers interested in the subject of religion in Russian public and political life, the book provides a “comprehensive overview of religious policy in Russia since the end of the communist regime,” written in an easily accessible, journalistic style. For someone like myself who has published a book on Orthodox parish life in Moscow, and other scholars, this book provides an indispensable complement to any detailed study of what Russians “believe in.” Fagan examines the pursuit of privilege of the Russian Orthodox Church, it’s relation to national culture, its courtship of the State, and its indis-putable place in Russian history juxta-posed against a pluralistic, “secularized” society mostly nominally religious, with a diverse cultural heritage. The docu-mentation provided by 82 pages of notes gathered over the author’s ten years reporting from all over the vast Russian Federation for the Forum 18 News Service is invaluable. She draws an arrow through history and tradition, all inclusive empire, Soviet homogeniza-tion, and a fractured modern State—not entirely lost but looking for its way—that points to a conclusion that “Russian society’s continuing failure to reach a consensus on the role of religion in public life is destabilizing the nation.”

While most human rights organizations take the moral high ground and blame the politicians for the unfortunate policies and lobbying that characterize contemporary Russia, Fagan does not bring to her analysis a preconceived opinion about who is a devil and who is an angel. She describes in detail different individual’s political posturing, time and again showing that the same person changes positions over the same issues, revealing that no neat classification into fundamentalist, conservative, and liberal works in describing the Russian reality. Fagan seeks out this broader understanding of the country Russians grew up in and live in; although one assumes she is Orthodox, she never makes the mistake of thinking she is a Russian Orthodox. She is always alert for elements of the puzzle she hasn’t yet grasped. All the authors of books written in English which I have previously read about contemporary Russia––some forty volumes worth––never seem to recover after discovering the appalling lack of legal culture in the Russia Federation. Non-Russian authors are invariably content to point out how the Russian government is violating its own constitution. In the United States, violations of constitutional law do not go unpunished, but in the Russian Federation one is pleasantly surprised if such a contradiction is even noticed. Fagan does not fall into these traps.

Fagan concedes that while many are trumpeting that Russia without Orthodoxy is not Russia, she subscribes to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s claim that the days of homogenous mono-religious nationhood are past and today pluralism is the best policy for the common good of all believers. Such freedom of conscience, the ability to practice one’s own beliefs, is foundational to any authentic practice of a belief, be it Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian. In the past, Russian non-conformity (i.e. the Old Believers) has tended to take an eschatological turn, but in 2013 how does one deal with the Slavophile conviction that “their native land is protected by God”? If Russian Orthodox Christians are ready to admit that the millions who died under Stalin suffered so horribly because of the collective treason of their church, what is left of the notion of Holy Russia?

While “the Kremlin is growing ever more reliant upon cynical identification with national values in order to protect the elite,” Putin’s state functions more or less incoherently in terms of its own priorities legislating (half-heartedly) communality and obligation for the Russian Church in order to heighten its own sagging national prestige. It is away from the national stage where “the Kremlim’s fundamental indifference to religious freedom has allowed junior and regional state officials to pursue an Orthodox-centered religious policy in defiance of federal standards.” This fits uncomfortably with the lobbying of the Russian Orthodox Church as it tries to co-opt Russian public space where “the Russian Orthodox Church asserts itself as the definitive expression of Russian nationhood.” For Fagan any identification of Orthodoxy with so-called national values on the part of the elite, who are “oblivious to religious freedom concerns,” is a cynical maneuver to protect their own interests.

Fagan claims that individuality is a “central concern to Orthodoxy,” but only rarely does she point out how readily this same individualism is a potent tool of state secularism. She concedes that the Church is appalled by the practices of “laicite” in France, but if the Russian bishops were to give up on the collective salvation of the Rus, they believe they would be opening the door to a modern religious market for personal salvation rather than maintaining a vision of salvation as a sacrament. The Patriarchate is looking for a way to resist turning religion from a social to a private affair of individual persons each representing his own faith. As the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church entered the 1990’s, they had already decided that they were not prepared to indifferently share spaces with Catholics, or Lutherans, let alone Pentecostals, Baptists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. From outside this is viewed as sectarian! The last two patriarchs lobbied for historical pride of place in a hierarchy of traditional Russia religions. This has had legal repercussions restricting public space for Protestants, who, predictably, “protested.”

In fact most people are agnostics or atheists. The fact that one is Kalmyk, for instance, does not make one more Buddhist any more than the fact that one is Russian makes one Orthodox. Seen from the perspective of the Patriarchate however, religious freedom contributes to a much sought after blurring of theological borders in just the way the secular European Union has tried to foster pluralism through secularization elsewhere in Eastern Europe. So how does one undo, deny, or go beyond Russia’s Orthodox past? Should all the churches in the Kremlin be re-made into museums, and liturgical services be banned there? Forced arrangements for salvation have always proved catastrophic, but so have forced efforts to secularize. Finally Fagan fears that the future of Christianity in Russia will be compromised by the Orthodox inability in the last twenty-five years to adapt a genuinely pluralistic attitude faced with what was an aggressive Protestant proselytism. Does the one excuse the other?

But who is this Orthodox church that is lobbying for primacy in the Russian Federation? The Russian Orthodox Church is not monolithic. It is in doctrinal unity with all the other synods of Orthodox bishops who define doctrine conciliarly. What is more, there has always been a decentralizing, “strong lateral authority” arising from the prominent roles of spiritual fathers (startsy) in the practice of the Orthodox faith in Russia, which was reinforced by the Soviet oppression of the official church hierarchy. Fagan states: “Therefore, the current Church state accommodation is once again the outcome of a balance of very modern interests.” In politics this also means that the Holy Synod can only support the Kremlin up to a point in the current atmosphere where the faithful have little good to say about their government.

If for the government an artificial homogeneity of religions facilitates administration, for the Patriarchate genuine freedom of conscience is a purely religious matter. Fagan insists that from within a political science point of view, because the state regards some of its citizens as second class because of their religion, these citizens will at some point revolt. This point is considered notably true of Muslims. Recognizing Muslims as full-fledged members of society means, as Fagan puts it, recognizing a real Islam “not shaped to fit someone’s ‘common human values.’” As can be expected from someone working for Forum 18 News Service, Fagan considers such abuse a legal problem for the State to address: “the post-Soviet deterioration of religious freedom for all, across Russian territory, is contributing to perilous fragmentation of the nation’s single constitution space.”

In section 5, titled “Fight Thine Enemy,” Fagan presents an interesting analysis of extra-legal tools invented to close down Protestant churches and sects. A new terminology was popularized with neologisms such as “totalitarian sects,” “spiritual security,” “canonical territory,” and “traditional religions.” These were used to generate animosity towards non-established religious groups. What lies behind the possibility of creating prejudice against expressions of Christian faith other than Orthodoxy? While Fagan does not deal with the answer, it lies in the space between two realities: the average Orthodox of Russia has an undeniably limited understanding of his/her faith, yet he/she may well have a basic intuition that whatever truth is revealed about God in the New testament, it is not subject to constant reinterpretation the likes of which they imagine the Protestants and Catholics are introducing––theologoumena that relativize the basic truths of the Orthodox faith reducing them to the status of just one more opinion.

When one combines this suspicion of non-Orthodox with the complete lack of pluralism that characterized the twentieth-century secularized Soviet Union, one can grasp the reasons for Orthodox intolerance. Inversely, one could hardly have expected the Protestant missionary to understand, to take into consideration, the Orthodox mindset which they were trying to displace or even subvert, for Western Christianity is separated at the grass roots by some five hundred years of separate “European” histories, and that is despite the first secularization of Russia under Peter the Great. What is lacking is a culture of dialogue that is based on an understanding of where the other party is coming from. A better educated Russian might try to explain to a Jehovah’s Witness or a Pentecostal why he cannot accept their expression of Christianity, but that is the privilege of those whose faith has been deepened by a real familiarity with the Bible and Church history.

Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill
Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill

The secular mentality which many missionaries bring with them to the Russian Federation, even when they are fundamentalists, leads them to suppose that this highly secularized Russia is like where they came from, a place where one can occupy a “religiously neutral zone open to value-neutral inquiry and deliberation.” But in Russia there is no continuity between a Christian understanding of the good and a modern Western liberal comprehension of the good. The good belongs to Christ as He loves and to mankind, making a commonwealth of faith called the Church; and in Russia for the last thousand years, this has meant the Russian Orthodox Church, which has often failed its faithful but has also accompanied them through all their trials. The fundamentalists’ materialization of the revealed truths of scripture cannot be expected to capture the Russian sense of what sharing spaces means, for the recent and less recent arrivals have a mobility across continents and oceans that the Russian Orthodox do not possess. Raimundo Panikar writing of Indian converts to Christianity some thirty years ago notes that “the problem of pluralism arises only when we feel––we suffer––the incompatibility of differing world views and are at the same time forced by the praxis of our factual co-existence to seek survival.” The issue for some Russian converts from agnosticism to Catholicism or Protestantism, especially those in the northwest of the Russian Federation, the heartland of Orthodoxy, is that their “new” religion means they must separate themselves from a virtual historical cultural matrix to which they in some sense still belong and the incoherence this usually creates in their worldviews.

Fagan diligently, methodically, and with careful analysis chronicles on the one hand how Russia’s long tradition of religious freedom is being eroded despite official policy and because of government neglect; and on the other how the current nationalist project to consolidate an exclusive Orthodox Russia is in the face of Russia’s “remarkable” ethnic and religious diversity and is doomed to fail. Whatever one believes ought to be the role of the Church in Russian society and politics or interprets the current drama on the Russian national stage to mean, Fagan’s book makes a powerful and long overdue contribution to the understanding of those outside Russia of what is real inside Russia.  IC

Fr. Stephen is an anthropologist, and the author of Christ After Communism, a book about lived Orthodoxy in Moscow at the parish level, published by the Orthodox Research Institute. 

In Communion / Winter 2013

Searching Every Which Way by Alex Patico

Searching Every Which Way

by Alex Patico

The following is not so much a review as a topical commentary on a few readings related to this issue’s theme.

A recent article in UUWorld, the magazine of the Unitarian-Universalist Association of Congregations, talked of “The End of Church.” The author, Fredric J. Muir, is the pastor of a UU church in Annapolis, MD, not far from my home. He notes that figures from Thomas Jefferson to contemporary scholars have suggested that his denomination has a potential to do well in America, yet “we remaina small religious minority.” He believes that UU’s are being “held back by a pervasive and disruptive commitment to individualism.” Although in tune with one of the characteristic strains of American culture, he says, this individualism also presents a problem. How can people who are “allergic to authority and power” also be deeply involved in their society? Muir is asking more than just how his faith tradition can be more successful and expansionary; he is wondering how it can be more conducive to the development of what Martin Luther King and others have called “The Beloved Community.” In other words, how can one (recalling the words of Hillel) be “for oneself” while also embracing social consciousness and an ethic of service?

Muir cites Emerson: “No law can be sacred to me but that of my nature,” and even, “men are less [when] together than alone.” The Beloved Community, in contrast, expresses “the ethical meaning of the Kingdom of God….the divine indwelling that equally graces all people” (citing Prof. Gary Dorrien about King).

Certainly, the latter is more consonant with the standard one gleans from Orthodox tradition: “One Orthodox Christian is no Orthodox Christian,” we say; we are saved together, rather than in isolation from our brothers and sisters. Leitourgia is the work of “the people,” not of a lone actor.

But, if this is the case, why are Unitarians so much more prominent in social endeavors than we Orthodox are? Their congregations are regularly engaged in a variety of efforts to seek the common good. Sure, we can point to the Ecumenical Patriarch addressing environmental stewardship, or find archival footage of an Orthodox hierarch marching with civil rights leaders, but no one would say that we have placed our stamp on society to the degree that Catholics, Jews, Quakers, or Brethren have, relative to our numbers. Is there a reason why Matthew 25 is not a Bible verse that we find in the lectionary for our Divine Liturgy?

Another periodical caught my attention. This one, called Prism, comes from Evangelicals for Social Action. The articles in a recent issue treated the conflict in Israel/Palestine, air pollution, homelessness, and “transcending the culture wars to build bridges for the common good.” One author prayed, “Whether we veer to the traditional or the innovative, may our focus be on Christ alone as we seek to follow him in a world that will change regardless of how we feel about budging.”

We Orthodox take pride in the fact that we honor tradition and resist innovation (at least for its own sake). But would it really be an innovation for us to involve ourselves in the community as the early Christians did? They spread out far and wide spreading the Good News of Christ’s life and teaching, and also took care of the sick, protected widows and orphans, held their wealth in common and showed their unique character in “how they loved one another.”

It is not as though the concerns for justice, peace, and the poor in other communities are embraced to the exclusion of core values. In the wind these days is a strong current of active searching for deeper and more profound expressions of Christianity. In what is usually called the “Emergent Church”—an untidy phenom-enon that is not quite an organization, nor exactly a movement—thousands are looking for ways to go beyond what they have in their own ecclesial backyard. Whether Catholic, Methodist, Baptist or Mennonite, the “Emergents” say they want a more serious relationship with Jesus Christ—less bureaucracy but more joy, less comfort and more challenge. Some form separate gatherings to augment their own church, others propose change in the way of “doing church” in their denomination.

A recent book, The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (Tony Jones), attempts to corral the disparate threads of this surprising and sometimes baffling new development in Christendom. Jones says that, “The modern church— at least as it is characterized by imposing physical buildings, professional clergy, denominational bureaucracies, residential seminary training, and other trappings— was an endeavor by faithful men and women in their time and place, attempting to live into the biblical gospel. But the church was never the end, only the means.” He posts, as sidebars throughout his book, a series of brief “dispatches,” such as these:

“Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality.”

“Emergents believe that church should function more like an open-source network and less like a hierarchy.”

“Emergents believe that theology is local, conversational, and temporary. To be faithful to the theological giants of the past, emergents endeavor to continue their theological dialogue.”

The idea of theology being “temporary” would strike many of us as anathema, yet we can relate to Jones’ description of emergents as embracing “the messiness of human life.” In our tradition of ekonomia, we recognize that intellectual formulations may often miss much of the mysterion that is God and His Kingdom.

Interestingly, the Emerging Church is, I’ve learned, quite open to exploring and accepting key elements of the Orthodox faith. Its members are seriously curious about contemplative and monastic traditions, and interested in rediscovering the Holy Spirit (and the Trinity in general), while they simultaneously “downplay the differences between clergy and laity.” They may haul out their pews and bring in overstuffed sofas as part of their “remodeling”—never considering that large parts of the Church never installed pews in the first place!

Personally, I am not ready yet to have communion bread come in “cinnamon raisin or cheddar jalapeno sourdough,” as in one congregation the book describes, but I admire the Emergents’ urge to seek God Himself, even if the way leads away from the temple they grew up in. They, Jones says, “are pushing over fences and roaming around at the margins of the church in America” like feral animals that have become de-domesticated. Time will tell where the movement leads.

So, while we may have something to learn about doing social action, what do we do well as Orthodox Christians? Another book I recently finished does a good job of elucidating the soul of our Holy Tradition. Everyday Saints and Other Stories features some elements that might cause evangelicals, emergents and Unitarians to blanche: exorcisms, gulags, and superstition. But it also shows the heart of Russian monastic life in all its “messy” richness. Written by a monk of the Pskov Caves Monastery, Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov), the book is a series of memoirs and hearsay, a work of non-fiction but as readable as a collection by Gogol. One encounters dozens of figures who have been Fr. Tikhon’s elders, peers, or parishion-ers over several decades, during both the Soviet era and the period of perestroika.

Saints has sold millions of copies in Russia and is available in a dozen languages. The stories told so captivatingly are too long to be repeated here, but the author also offers, from time to time, brilliant and moving passages on life in the faith:

“For us it was somehow completely obvious that Soviet authority would some-day live itself out and collapse with a magnificent crash. This is not to say, of course, that it could not seriously ruin our lives, putting some of us in jail, for example, or even getting us killed. But we believed that unless it was the will of God nothing of the sort whatever possibly could happen anyway. In the words of the ancient ascetic Abba Forstus: ‘If God wishes me to live, He knows how to make this happen. But if God does not wish me to live, then why should I live?’”

“This new world Fr. Raphael had joined was full of joy and light, and governed by its own particular laws. In this world, the help of the Lord would always come when it was truly needed. In this world wealth was ridiculous, and glamour and ostentatiousness absurd, while modesty and humility were beautiful and becoming. Here great souls and just souls truly judged themselves to be lesser and worse than any other man. Here the most respected were those who had fled from all worldly glory. And here the most powerful were those who with all their hearts had recognized the powerlessness of their unaided humanity. Here the true power was hidden with frail elders, and it was understood that sometimes it was better to be old and ill than to be young and healthy…. Here the death of each became a lesson to all, and the end of earthly life was just the beginning.”

Place Everyday Saints alongside The Philokalia on your bookshelf, if you are not called to enter the monastery yourself. The search is mainly within each of us, after all. Poet Corey Carlson wrote that God’s love is “never hidden far, though we seek as though it were.  IC

In Communion / Winter 2013