Rebuilding Russian Orthodoxy the Ecumenical Issue

by Vladimir Zelinsky

"This, too, is a lesson we have to learn: besides the unmasking of humanism without God, the discovery of the humanity of God in our neighbor, in the brother and sister, in the unknown other."

Whatever judgment we pronounce on the Russian Orthodox Church of our day we should keep in mind its historical cultural and spiritual background Especially here in Americas where the air of religious freedom is so natural. For Russian Orthodoxy freedom was conceived in the jubilee year of 1988 but really born three years later at the moment of the August putsch of 1991. I say "moment" because the birth of freedom which Russians had dreamed about for two centuries was momentous like an explosion. Keep these time frames in mind: five years of freedom, three years of expectation and ferment, and a thousand years of history during which the last seven decades were the longest and most tragic, difficult and ambiguous period. It is not surprising that the effect of freedom was first of all to reveal the legacy of a thousand years of history and that this factor shaped the relations of Russian Orthodoxy with other Christian families.

The avalanche of freedom was very sudden and took the Church almost by surprise. It brought a great wave of public sympathy for all religion as a victim of Communist oppression. Very soon all confessions received all the formal rights and opportunities which exist in Western countries such as legal status, religious liberty, the right to repossess and restore profaned churches, the right to teach, to open theological schools, to publish, to do charitable work, and so on. But in our special Russian circumstances all these rights and new opportunities immediately posed a series of challenges for the Orthodox Church.

To begin with there was the challenge of poverty: the Church repossessed an enormous legacy but this legacy lay in ruins.

The second challenge was that of religious education: the sanctuaries were filled with people who had no religious preparation at all, yet the Church was not in a position to supply well-trained teachers. To be Orthodox means to be faithful to the apostolic and patristic tradition of two thousand years. If you know nothing about this tradition except the devotion of the heart, you are doomed to pure ritualism, sometimes even to superstition.

The third challenge was that of other faiths, other churches, other religions and especially other sects. This challenge was perhaps the most painful one. Let me develop the point unmerry detail.

The Russian Church always believed that it was the Church of the Russian people, and for the most part this was so. During the Soviet period the Church continued to believe this, convinced that the soul of the Russian people had in fact been "stolen" and imprisoned by the Communist regime. The Church was sure that the regime would not be able to keep the soul of the people under lock and key forever but would eventually have to give it back, not to just anybody, but to the Orthodox Church. When the soul of Russia was indeed liberated, the Church expected a mass return of people to "the Father's house" where everything was prepared for them. But the real picture turned out rather differently.

As you know, Communist utopianism left behind a huge legacy of deceived hopes. In the last years of the Soviet Union, very few people actually believed in Communism, but the whole population still lived in the artificial environment created by state ideology. When, in a matter of days, this environment disappeared, it was replaced by a spiritual vacuum where people were prepared to drink from any source. The sources were not slow to present themselves. The Orthodox mentality, if we may use this phrase, was truly astonished and scandalized by the sudden rise of a religious market in Russia, where adroit and well-trained foreign merchants from all religions were not slow to rush in and display all sorts of imported spiritual goods, very often of doubtful quality. The initial Orthodox reaction was immediate, almost instinctive rejection. It should be added that the Russian Church itself did not have any special vocation or talent for adapting itself to a mass market or issuing calls for conversion.

At the beginning this rejection took the traditional form of inveterate anti-Catholic feeling. The situation was complicated by the centuries-old Uniate problem in Ukraine, by the sudden installation of a Catholic hierarchy in Russia, and especially by the growing influence of the foreign-based Russian Orthodox Church Abroad in Russia itself.

This last point should be explained. The Russian Church of the Soviet period was, certainly, restrained and suppressed as every form of religious life was at the time, but it was also in a sense protected, from the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, from various sects, and so on. Freedom removed all the old restrictions, but also all protection. The Russian Orthodox Church Abroad entered the "canonical territory" of the "indigenous" Church and presented itself as the one pure and stainless Church, a Church not compromised by what it regards as two mortal sins: collaboration with the Soviet regime, and collaboration with other churches and faiths in ecumenical dialogue.

The general picture was complicated by another factor, namely, that the ecumenical activity of the Soviet period was not only supervised but directly inspired by the Communist regime. By way of illustration I need remind you of just one fact. In 1961, when the Moscow Patriarchate solemnly joined the World Council of Churches at the New Delhi assembly, a good hundred churches were being closed in the Soviet Union every day in the Khrushchev persecution of the Church. People were not so blind that they failed to see a connection between the important ecumenical event and its historical context, a clear-cut link between the so called search for Christian unity and the so called struggle for peace in its specifically Soviet interpretation. From then on, the ecumenical face of the Russian Church always wore a kind of political complexion.

For this reason, the reaction against ecumenism at the moment of freedom was as inevitable as the economic stratification of the population after the liberalization of prices. In the circumstances it seemed like a miracle that a positive orientation to ecumenism was officially confirmed by a council of the Russian Orthodox Church held in Moscow in December, 1994.Initially the council was ready to put an end to the ecumenical temptation once and for all, but the influence of the Patriarch and especially of Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk gave the fragile ecumenical party in the Church a last chance.

The debate about ecumenism also turns on the lesson to be drawn from the seventy years of"Babylonian captivity" endured by the Russian Church. According to one view, perhaps the prevalent one today, the fallen Soviet utopia was not just an inhuman regime (in today's disorder a strong hand can sometimes inspire a certain nostalgia) but a transformation of European humanism which in Russia reached its logical extreme, namely, ideological and collective solipsism, one might even say the reign of Antichrist. Humanity refused God, "closed" Heaven once for all and filled the whole universe with itself, with the revelation of its own nothingness and the immense pretense of ruling the world in the pride of false consciousness. But the universe invented by human beings grew so small and compact that people became the slaves of their own invention. The Communist utopia was a utopia of human existence without God, of a world from which every glimmer of transcendence had been suppressed. But the human being who would master this artificial construct in the last analysis "came only to steal and kill and destroy" (Jn. 10:10) his own humanity.

Another view of the matter, while adhering in principle to the preceding, proposes a different interpretation of humanism, namely, that the thief who robbed us stole a "buried talent," one that we believers failed to utilize and eventually forgot. Is not the parable of the talents (Mt.25) told first of all as a prophecy of the Last Judgement, and is not our recognition of Jesus in our neighbor (the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner) the criterion by which we will be judged? In other words, the discernment of the humanity of our God in other people, a humanity to which we are called to be faithful, will be the ultimate test of our faith. When we arepreoccupied only with the divinity of God, the thief comes and seizes the neglected treasure.The monkey apes faith. This, too, is a lesson we have to learn: besides the unmasking of humanism without God, the discovery of the humanity of God in our neighbor, in the brother and sister, in the unknown other.

Ecumenism along with the other issues raised by freedom has placed the Russian Church before the question of its own identity. What does it mean to be Orthodox in today's Russia, and in the contemporary world? What is the next task, the true face of the Orthodox faith? All the previous restrictions drove faith inside, into the shelter of invisible spiritual life. But what does this spirit have to say to others? How can it manifest itself in society, in the world?

This general philosophical interrogation translates into concrete questions of ecclesiastical reality. Should the Church be spiritually open to other churches and other faiths, or should it only protect itself from them? Does it have a national mission to be the Church of the Russian people, or does it also have a universal vocation? What liturgical idiom should it use, the Church Slavonic of its ancestors or the living Russian language? Can there be changes in liturgical practice? What political regime should the Church prefer? Finally, what is ecumenism? Is it only diplomatic and cunning relations with churches tottering on the brink of spiritual adultery, or is it a true response to the sin of dividedness and a real search for unity?

Ecumenism does not exist apart from all these questions, nor can it be shielded from controversies about renovation or renewal in the Russian Church. The Church still remembers the misadventure of the so called Renovationist Schism of the 1920's when liturgical and canonical reforms, sometimes prompted by real needs, sometimes rash and thoughtless, went hand in hand with Communist policies aimed at destroying the Church. "Renovation" became a synonym for betrayal of the Church, and so it was at the time. That time has passed, but the word retains its negative associations. For example, a document strongly condemning ecumenism of any kind written by monks of Valaam Monastery is entitled "The Way of Universal Renovation."

Speaking schematically, we may say that two sharply contrasting approaches to ecumenism are being taken in the Russian Church today. Let me not put labels on them but rather mention two recent Church conferences one on the "The Unity of the Church" in November, 1994, and, responding to it, a conference on "The Time of the Church" in May, 1996 where opposite approaches were taken. The former, so called more conservative approach is for the moment stronger and more influential. But it is a curious fact that when the other side, the more open approach, is criticized and condemned, its power and presence in the Church seem to grow. The most urgent problem for the Russian Church is to find the way to a real dialogue between these two positions.

So let me continue my presentation by offering you an imaginary dialogue between clergy representing these two points of view. This will give you an idea of the kind of debate which is going on every day in the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church.

Father A: We Orthodox people follow the royal way, as our Fathers in faith taught us, as the Bible teaches us saying,"You must therefore be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left. You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you..." (Dt. 5:32-33). You, blind guides of the blind, lead them to the pit.

Father Z: What you call the pit is a commandment of unity which Christ himself left us as the ultimate test of love for God and our neighbors.

Father A: True love consists in saving our stray brothers from their errors because errors in matters of faith lead to eternal death.

Father Z: All the atrocities of past centuries were justified by a preoccupation with the salvation of lost brothers. Shouldn't we look for their human face rather than total up the sum of their beliefs?

Father A: All the hecatombs of this century were justified by your humanistic faith, which has nothing in common with the faith of the Church of Christ.

Father Z: I think you and I have taken a wrong turn. Let us talk about the ecumenical vocation of the Orthodox Church, which prays at every liturgy for the "unity of all." How can we realize this prayer?

Father A: You know perfectly well how: only by returning. And you know what it means to return: to come back to the true Apostolic tradition that by the infinite grace of God the Orthodox Church alone has safeguarded.

Father Z: For the moment I shall not discuss the heart of this concept of return. But just look at the question in practical terms. You invite the other churches to return. But in fact you don't do anything to facilitate their coming back. If you are honest, you will admit that missionary work is scarcely one of the Orthodox Church's strong points. When the Catholic Church calls people to return, it sends missionaries all over the world. When the Orthodox Church calls for return, what does it do about it?

Father A: It prays.

Father Z: Nothing more?

Father A: You forget the real power of prayer. You forget that unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain (Ps. 127: 1).

Father Z: You speak about prayer, and your argument has an absolute validity, a truth for all time. But I suspect that you hide behind this truth because your real concern is for a nationally oriented Church, fenced off from the world, with its back turned to the other Christian families, even when they manifest real and holy love for their fellow human beings. You are very indulgent toward our countrymen, only not as persons created by the Father and redeemed by Christ but as "patriots," as "our" people as opposed to "theirs," even when these people of"ours" are former functionaries of the Soviet system who now, even without baptism, have become more royalist than the king. They shout at every street corner about their firm and infallible Orthodoxy and search out heresies everywhere except in themselves. Not for nothing during the recent presidential campaign did all the conservative forces of the Russian Church who struggle for "pure Orthodoxy" urge people to vote for the Communist candidate who would save us from the pernicious influence of the West. It was a call to vote for Nero as the guarantor of the moral health of the nation.

Father A: As for the moral disaster that overtook us when our country turned to so called democracy, you know very well what I mean. The corruption, the degradation not just of individuals but of the whole society, the power of the mafia clans, prostitution, pornography, and so on. The losses are so huge that one must reckon with a Masonic conspiracy against our country. Maybe Communist power was a beast, but it did not make the people a beast in their turn. Communist power was a parody of a true Christian autocracy, but even as a parody it fulfilled the principal function of government, which is to "restrain lawlessness," as St. Paul puts it in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians (2 Th. 2:7). Remember the patristic prophecy that "the Antichrist will come in lawlessness."

Father Z: Well, isn't this something! It's our democracy now that turns out to be the Antichrist, not the regime which during its seventy years of rule killed, tortured, crushed tens of millions of human lives in concentration camps, led our country to misery and made the name of Russia a synonym for the totalitarian beast. But let's turn back to religious matters. Don't you see that your refusal to have regard for other Christian families and the human family in general leads you to a utopia like the Communist one, only fabricated out of dreams of the past rather than of the future? Moscow is again the Third Rome, the unique guardian of the true faith.

Father A: The name of Third Rome is vulgarized by irresponsible polemicists and pamphleteers; but in essence it preserves the truth, profaned but irrevocable. The true and undiminished Church shines in Holy Russia in obscurity and humility, where you see only stupid ritualism and popular superstition. And the true Church shines also from the Holy Mountain of Athos, from many Orthodox countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria or Greece. Even in America, in the midst of modern godless civilization, God raised up a great Orthodox ascetic and spiritual teacher, Father Seraphim Rose. All these teachers agree that what you call "ecumenism" is the heresy of heresies, the last and most perfidious attack that the devil is raising against the true Church.

Father Z: When so many serious accusations are heaped up in such disorder, it is very difficult to respond.

Father A: I am ready to explain them to you one by one if you wish. Ecumenism is the heresy of heresies because all the false teachings of the past are represented there not openly and honestly but in the guise of talk about universal brotherhood. But it is brotherhood without Christ, which doesn't need Christ as Savior. The whole idea of the "division" of the churches is absurd. There was always One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; it still exists and will exist until the end of the world. The other churches have fallen away from it. You seem to think that every church preserves a part of the truth, as if truth were divided. But "is Christ divided?" (1 Cor. 1:13).

Father Z: In your words I cannot help but hear the prayer of the Pharisee: "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers" (Lk. 18: 11). You cite the great Apostle: "is Christ divided?" Never. But are we Orthodox people always faithful to Him? Are we faithful to Orthodoxy? Do you think that Orthodoxy can be reduced to mere custody of the decisions of the Seven Ecumenical Councils? I do not say that there are holier people outside of Orthodoxy than inside. But maybe the frontiers of Orthodoxy are larger than the walls of them divided confessions. Why can't we search and find Christ wherever He is really "formed," as the Letter to the Galatians puts it. He is formed in charity, prayer, devotion, even in every human face, every human look. Every person is an icon of Christ; how can we treat human beings with an easy heart as some sort of devil's stratagem?

This debate in one form or another is going on every day in the Russian Church. The words may be different, but the thoughts of the heart are the same. One should realize that neither side can simply win and eliminate the other. The voice of Russian Orthodoxy will therefore remain double, and the worst thing that can happen is a schism between the two sides. On the issue of this debate depends the future of the Orthodox Church in Russia in the years ahead.

Let us remember, however, that the history of the Church is still only beginning.

The Seminar on Religion and World Civilization is sponsored and administered by the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Butler University. The Seminar promotes understanding of international and intercultural relations through the study of religion in contemporary Africa, Asia and Europe.

Vladimir Zelinsky, a native of Moscow, is a Russian Orthodox lay theologian and professor of Russian language and literature at the Universita Cattolica del Saao Coors in Brescia, Italy.

Mr Zelinsky's essay was originally presented on September 17, 1996 to a panel of the 1996-97 seminar series on "Religion and the Future of Europe" at Butler University.

For information about the Seminar on Religion and World Civilization contact:

Dr Paul Valliere / Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies,

Butler University / 4600 Sunset Avenue / Indianapolis, Indiana 46208

Tel: (317) 940-9404 / Fax: (317) 940-9930

Email: [email protected]


posted April 23, 1997