This essay is outstanding. It represents the quality of thought that should be coming from all Orthodox Churches; the words that speak to the foundational questions of culture as I wrote yesterday. Frankly, the Orthodox in America are capable of contributions of this depth and importance. I have my doubts however, that Constantinople will ever achieve this level of creative engagement with the culture. I wish it were different but I have not seen any evidence that it is.
by Kirill I, patriarch of Moscow and all RussiaA religious way of life – in our case, a Christian-Orthodox way of life – is distinguished by its foundation in the tradition of the Church. Tradition presents itself to us as a collection of truths that by means of the witness of the holy apostles were accepted by the Church, are preserved by her, and are developed in relation to the challenged posed to the Church in the various historical periods. In short, tradition is the vital flow of the grace of faith in the life of the Church. Tradition is a normative phenomenon, it is nothing other than the norm of faith. [...] Only a life that corresponds to tradition as norm of faith can be considered a truly Christian-Orthodox life. [...]
Preserving this norm and affirming it in society as a fundamental ontological value is a task of every member of the Church. [...] This norm is stable and fragile at the same time. The experience of contact with other cultural and social models tells us that from that contact, this norm can emerge damaged or even destroyed, or unharmed and even strengthened. [...] When the models of life different from our own are also based on their respective traditions, then most of the time they do not constitute a threat to the values on which the Christian-Orthodox way of life is founded. Historically, the Orthodox have coexisted, coexist and interact in Russia with Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and other Christian confessions. They have always lived peacefully beside the members of other confessions and religions; except for the cases in which a faith or a way of life seen as foreign has been imposed on our people by force or by means of proselytism. Then the people have risen up in defense of their own faith and their own norm of life. As a rule, these are cases that have taken place following aggression on the part of foreign powers. [...]
The problem is that today there are no defenses capable of protecting the spiritual health of the people, their historical-religious uniqueness, from the expansion of foreign and destructive socio-cultural factors, from a new way of life that has emerged outside of any tradition and has been formed under the influence of the postindustrial reality.
At the foundation of this model of life are the ideas of neoliberalism, which combine pagan anthropocentrism, established in European culture at the time of the Renaissance, with features of Protestant theology and elements of philosophical thought of Jewish origin. These ideas were definitively formed at the end of the age of Enlightenment. The French Revolution is the conclusive act of this philosophical and spiritual revolution, which is the basis for the rejection of the normative significance of tradition.
It is by no means a coincidence that this revolution began with the Protestant Reformation, because it was precisely the Reformation that rejected the normative principle of tradition in the realm of Christian doctrine. Tradition, in Protestantism, ceased being a criterion of truth. It was replaced by the application of reason to the Sacred Scriptures, and by personal religious experience. From this point of view, Protestantism essentially presents itself as a liberal interpretation of Christianity.
I would like to say a few words about ecumenism in this regard. When there is a slowing or a crisis in ecumenical dialogue, this is to be attributed in the first place to an insufficiency of a methodological nature: instead of agreeing immediately on the most important things, meaning on the understanding of sacred tradition as norm of faith and criterion of theological truth, Christians undertake to discuss individual questions, which are certainly relevant, but particular. Even if there were success on some of these individual points, this would have no great repercussions: what permanent significance could there be, in fact, to a specific doctrinal agreement when one of the parties – I am thinking, for example, of a significant proportion of the Protestant theologians – does not recognize the very concept of norm of faith? So new ideas and new arguments can always revise or annul what has been established previously, leading constantly to new disagreements and divisions.
If we look at the question of female priesthood or that of the admission of homosexuality, is not this perhaps precisely what happens today? Both of the questions confirm, among other things, the thesis about the liberal nature of Protestantism, as previously defined. It is absolutely evident that the introduction of female priesthood and the admission of homosexuality have taken place under the influence of a certain liberal vision of human rights: a vision in which these rights are radically opposed to sacred tradition. And a part of Protestantism has resolved the question in favor of this conception of human rights, ignoring the clear norm of faith in the tradition.
The new way of life in the postindustrial age is based on the exercise of individual freedom at any cost and without limits, except those imposed by the law. How can this vision be defined from a theological point of view? The conception of neoliberalism is based on the idea of the liberation of the human person from everything that he believes could limit the exercise of his will and his rights. This model presumes that the purpose of human existence is the affirmation of individual freedom; and it affirms that from this, the person derives his absolute value.
I would like to observe that theologians, including Orthodox theologians, do not deny the freedom of the individual. Affirming this does not betray the doctrine of the Church of Christ. The Lord himself, who created man in his image and likeness, has infused in him the gift of free will. [...] But when the apostle Paul calls us to freedom, he is talking about the predestination of man to be free in Christ, meaning free from the burden of sin. Because true freedom is acquired by man to the extent to which he is free from sin, from the obscure power of instinct and from the evil that weighs upon him. [...]
But the liberal ideal – as previously described – makes no appeal to liberation from sin, because it is the very concept of sin that is absent in this liberalism. There is no room for the concept of sin; an action is illicit when, with a given behavior, the individual violates the law or compromises someone else’s freedom. We could say that the neoliberal postindustrial doctrine revolves around the idea of the emancipation of the individual sinner, meaning the unleashing of the full potential of sin that exists in man. Man emancipated in this sense has the right to free himself from everything that obstructs him in the affirmation of his “ego” wounded by sin. This is – the claim goes – a private affair, of the sovereign, autonomous individual, who is not dependent on anyone else but himself. In this sense, neoliberalism is diametrically opposed to Christianity. It can be defined as anti-Christian, without fear of sinning against the truth.
As for the gravity of the challenge, a qualitative leap is presented by the fact that the modern conception of liberalism [...] has penetrated and has spread in all the spheres of human activity: economic, political, legal, religious. The neoliberal idea determines the structure of society, it determines the common significance of civil liberties, of the democratic institutions, of the market economy, of the freedom of speech, of the freedom of conscience, of everything that is included in the concept of “contemporary civilization.”
Whenever any objections to the neoliberal doctrine are advanced, some are struck with an almost sacred terror, they see these criticisms as an attack on the “sacred principles” of freedom and human rights. One commentator said that in one of my articles published in 1999 in the “”Nezavisimaja Gazeta,” entitled “The conditions of modernity,” I was proposing nothing less than the foundation of a society similar to the one envisioned by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and that I wanted to light up the skies of Russia with the bonfires of the Holy Inquisition. Society today must understand that neoliberal ideas can be criticized on the basis of different conceptions of political economy. The plurality of opinion, moreover, takes its place quite naturally in the system of values that liberal doctrine itself defends. [...]
But let’s return to the initial question: what is, what should be the response of the individual person, of society, and finally of theology to the fundamental challenge of our time, the one issued by neoliberalism?
It is in the first place appropriate to emphasize how today there are at least two widespread points of view on this subject. [...] The first is the one that we could call the isolationist model. [...] It is a point of view that is present both in some political circles and in a certain part of our ecclesial reality. And nonetheless a question arises: is isolation vital and creative, is it truly effective, all the more in an open world, in an age characterized by the integration of science, economics, information, communication, and even politics? Such a defense against the outside world is perhaps possible for a small group of persons in the desert or in the dense forests of Siberia; although even those “old believers” in Siberia who for many decades defended themselves from “this world” were not able in the long run to preserve their cherished solitude or their form of existence. But is it possible to isolate, to cloister a Church and a great nation? Would this not mean rejecting the mission given to the Church by the Savior Jesus Christ himself, that of witnessing to the truth before the entire world?
The second model consists in accepting en bloc the idea of neoliberal civilization – as it has been developed in the West up until our time – in order to transplant it artificially to Russian Orthodox soil, to impose it on the people by force, if necessary. Unlike similar attempts made in the past, today the power of the state and its institutions is no longer necessary to attain this goal. It is sufficient to use the mass media, to use the overwhelming power of publicity, to exploit the possibilities offered by the educational system, and so on. This model asserts that the religious and historical-cultural tradition of our country has been exhausted, that only “common human values” have the right to exist, that the axiological unification of the world is the indispensable condition for integration. There is no doubt: if this point of view wins, the Orthodox will be confined to a sort of spiritual reservation. [...] Not unlike the first model, this model also has its followers: both in the political world, and, to a certain extent, in the ecclesial camp.
It is clear that the two models are mutually exclusive. It is also evident that both enjoy strong support. The opposition between these two points of view is to a great extent at the basis of the climate of tension and confrontation in social life; a tension that also impacts the life of the Church.
Is it possible to face and to resolve this challenge peacefully, meaning without sinning against the truth? Is it possible to offer an effective model that would lead to cooperation between the values of tradition and liberal ideas? [...] Christian and Orthodox theology must expose the heart of the matter: it must forcefully assert that the existence of liberal institutions in economic, political, and social life and in international relations is reasonable and morally justified only on the condition that the neoliberal vision of man and society is not imposed along with them. [...] The main task for theology is the elaboration of a Christian social doctrine of the Russian Orthodox Church, a doctrine rooted in tradition and responding to the questions facing contemporary society, a doctrine that could serve as guide for the action of priests and laity, and that correctly reflects the position of the Church on the most important problems of modernity. [...]
Thinking of the tasks of theology in regard to the relationship between Church and world, I would like to conclude by saying this: the norm of faith, engraved in the apostolic tradition and preserved by the Church, will reveal itself to us in its fullness as norm of human life when man himself is full of the desire to realize that what he has learned. Attaining this is not a task for theology alone, but for the entire Church in its fullness, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit.