It’s like I’m trying to get two forms of Orthodoxy to meet:
- The first is that of a popular and ‘national’ Orthodoxy. The ‘faces’ it takes are of big ceremonies at major religious locations (Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, major monasteries like St Sergius at Serguei Posad or the Monastery of the Caves in Pskov) with senior hierarchs in gaudy vestments, surrounded by candle-bearers and acolytes, long religious marches (Krestni khodi), and pictures of ‘spiritual-looking’ priests, with flowing beards and gaunt faces in bright-coloured vestments, the sort of pictures that illustrate popular religious magazines. I would add, currently and less fortunately, that of priests performing burials in the Ukraine war-zone, surrounded by men in battledress, who clearly do not understand the ceremony, but sense the rite is important and to whom it gives some sort of meaning and closure to their comrades’ deaths. It is a simple, folk religion, into which you enter by being essentially part of a crowd, without asking too many questions. It’s what in bad moments I can ‘priest and peasant’ Orthodoxy.
- The second is the Orthodoxy of the spiritual writers that Orthodox read: the Church Fathers, the Philokalia, and that of Mount Athos.
Right now, it would seem, it is the first type of Orthodoxy that seems to have the wind in its sails, at least in the Russian Church. Orthodoxy as part of a popular culture that the hierarchy seems to be pushing, largely in step with the Russian political machine, which seems to be wanting to paint western culture as disunited and morally depraved.
This causes a problem in the diaspora, especially its more intellectual, non-Russian part, whose natural proclivity is very much towards the second type. This diaspora also lives within a wider Christian environment (Roman Catholic and Protestant) which has largely lost the first type, even if hankerings remain at the more ‘integrist’ end of the scale, and where the emphasis, especially in Catholicism, is very far from nationalist.
My instincts tell me not to jettison the first type of Orthodoxy. I admit as much as a ‘sociologist’ than as a theologian. Societies need some sort of glue to hold them together, and religion has traditionally provided it, including, paradoxically, giving identity to the liberal anti-clerical group in countries like France, who defined themselves as being ‘not’-Church. My big worry with Europe, as it forgets Christianity, and with a Muslim population in cities of 25%+, is that the glue may not be strong enough. Therefore if, in countries like Russia, Christianity, or religion more generally, can indeed still provide part of the glue that holds societies together, so be it.
This first Orthodoxy reminds me more and more of the Old Testament, and particularly of later Judaism, very much the scene in which Christ himself operated: the popular rites which hold a people together and give identity, both in a physical country and in a wide diaspora. It is the religion of the big gatherings in Jerusalem to which people travelled long distances – remember Christ’s repeated going up from Galilee to the feasts, first with his family, later with his disciples. There the people stood around for long periods, while priests performed rites in a language (classical Hebrew) poorly understood by the people. Religion was deeply woven into the political power structure – and the Gospels, particularly Luke, portraying Christ’s death as his being removed for threatening the ‘symphony’ between the Jewish powers that be (‘the high priests and chief citizens’) and the Roman occupants.
I am very attempted to label this as ‘Pre-Christianity’ – basically one form of what Fritjof Schuon calls ‘religio perennis’, a ‘religiöses Gemeingut’. I have also heard the term, unkind but not far off the mark, of ‘updated Judaism’.
It is religion, it is socially necessary, but it is not full Christianity. My concern right now, both in Russia and the diaspora, is that ‘full Christianity’ is being drowned in it.
A hundred years ago the situation was simple: ‘full Christianity’, was largely the preserve of the more educated part of monasticism, the people (‘narod’) lived pre-Christianity, and the secular priesthood hovered somewhere in between. This situation no longer holds, in particular the more educated laity is no longer ready to accept this pre-Christianity and is demanding ‘full Christianity’. One senses the religious powers-that-be uneasy at this: one way round it (at least in the Orthodox diaspora) being to ‘clergify’ any more intelligent and pious male by putting him in a cassock and vestment and giving him a place in the liturgical dance. (This leaves open the question of intelligent women ….).
How do you hold the two together theologically and practically?
I am very tempted to borrow a solution from both Orthodoxy and Catholicism in talking of Christianity as a series of stages. I think of the ‘Stages of Contemplation’ of St Peter of Damaskos, one of authors with the most pages in the Philokalia, and obviously of St Teresa of Avila, with her Interior Castle. Both make a sharp distinction between a first level: basically ‘keeping of the commandments and try to be good’ and a second level, where one is much more individually grasped by Christ, and, normally in a long process of spiritual struggle, comes into a deep personal relationship with the Trinity. For Peter of Damaskos, the switch point lies between the fourth and fifth of his eight stages of contemplation, for Teresa, after the third of the seven mansions. The two stages bear a striking resemblance to what I have called ‘pre-Christianity’
Basically, what we are saying is that we are going to have to learn to cater for people at both stages: pre-switch and post-switch. For (Russian) Orthodoxy the big, and very big problem here, is that we have little experience (and sometimes, I fear, little interest) in handling post-switch Christianity at parish level. The Roman Catholics have got better at it, willy-nilly, since the 1970s, basically because, with the five-fold increase in university education in the 1950s and 1960s, it found itself with an educated Fussvolk which could think for itself, and wanted much more say in their own religious practice.
Both sides need each other. I am very far from use that we can run a Church in basically ‘post-switch’ or ‘full Christianity’ mode, even if full Christianity must be both the locomotive and the goal. But we need to allow for a significant part of our more intelligent members, to go ‘post-switch’, on to full Christianity.
The distinction may also offer a theological way out of the present impasse on certain moral issues which are going to bedevil Christianity for the next generation. Pre-switch morality can only differ so far from the general consensus of society: put at its crudest, in a society (Russia, Uganda) where homosexual activity is taboo, pre-switch Christianity will condemn it. In societies like the UK and the USA, where social consensus seems more tolerant, pre-switch morality, those churches offering ‘pre-Christianity’, especially the ‘national’ churches, can be more tolerant. At the post-switch stage of full Christianity, one can allow oneself to stand much more strongly against general social trends.
This distinction, incidentally, offers an interesting alternative take on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer, with which we started the long liturgical march to Easter today. In many ways, Pharisee is pre-switch Christianity, a religion which centres on behaving in the right or wrong way. The tax-gatherer is post-switch, having reached that realization of his non-worth and the beginning of tears that start the long ascent (mostly a descent in fact) towards the living God.