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Orthodoxy: A Fertile Faith

When a recent coffee hour conversation turned, unexpectedly, to politics and what if anything the Church has to say about public issues and then all of the “God talk” in the current presidential contest, a friend said, “Oh, that’s politics. The Orthodox Church shouldn’t get involved in politics. Nothing good can come of it.”

Well, yes and no.

If we’re talking about partisan politics then yes, of course, the Church must stay out of it. The Church was not founded to endorse candidates for office or advance a political ideology. But if we’re talking about the political dimensions of important moral issues, then yes, of course, the Church may quite properly speak to these. Did we notice that there is something going on in California about marriage? Were political institutions involved? Do we recall the 2003 Statement on Moral Crisis on Our Nation issued by SCOBA?

I wonder if some Orthodox Christians wish that the faith could somehow remain removed from politics and other worldly issues. That it stand apart, a walled-off sphere of piety that you visit for a couple hours a week as if you were visiting some sort of Museum of Religion. To be clear about it, the Church does not exist to issue opinions about every political or policy question under the sun, nor is it competent to do so. But on significant moral questions, it’s voice must be heard. Does that drag the Body of Christ into the mud of politics? Here’s a better way to ask the question: Is abortion a political issue? (Remember something called Roe v. Wade?) How about war, or poverty, or the death penalty, or business ethics, or pornography, or the morality of popular culture. Any of these affected by politics?

I have a theory, or really just a hunch, about the reticence among some Orthodox Christians to discuss political or policy issues through the lens of Church teaching. Maybe it’s because these discussions will lead to conclusions and positions that look a lot like those of other conservative Christian groups. Dare I say it? The Christian Right. Wouldn’t that throw the Orthodox in with the wrong sort of conservatives? What would our progressive co-members at the National Council of Churches say to such an unvarnished display of conservative sentiment? Where is the nuance!

In his “455 Questions and Answers” book, published by Light & Life in 1987, Fr. Stanley Harakas took on the subject of the Moral Majority, and the lack of support among Orthodox Christians for its programs. But, paradoxically, he also pointed out how many of its moral positions on issues were consistent with the moral tradition of Orthodoxy. A clear divergence, however, was the Moral Majority’s uncritical support for Israel, something that Fr. Stanley said is opposed by many Greek, Lebanese and Arab Orthodox Christians.

He concludes his observation with this:

The main point I have tried to make is that I think that it is time we Orthodox Christians formed our own organization to speak to these public moral issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective. I would very much like to hear from priests and lay people about this idea.

Well, Fr. Stanley, your wish has come true. The American Orthodox Institute was founded “to speak to these public moral issues from an Orthodox Christian perspective.”

Olivier Clement, in an essay published in 1973, warns us against an “orientalized” or ritualistic conception of the Church:

The Orthodox Church again is by no means a museum of the first thousand years of Christianity. The dimension of fatherhood, so strong in Orthodoxy (which, thank God, frees it from any evolutionist idea of Tradition) may tempt her to think that the Fathers have said everything and that is only remains to repeat them. This doubtless explains the excessive confidence of some prelates for whom truth is an object possessed. But Father Florovsky reminded us, on the occasion of the fifth centenary of Palamas, that the notion of ‘father’ is not at all limited to the period called ‘Patristic,’ that Saint Gregory Palamas was a ‘Church Father’ in the fourteenth century, and The Fathers beget us in the faith that we in our turn might become fathers, that is free creators, in the continuity of the same Spirit. The word of the Fathers is a logos spermatikos: it does not crush, it fertilizes.

You fertilize things that are alive and growing. You do not fertizile things that are dead or petrified. And if the Tradition is to make sense to us in the here and now, we must till the soil and plant the seeds of a living faith. It is a big garden. It is not a museum.

A note to readers: The AOI team is preparing to launch an all new Web site for Clarion Review, with new features and exclusive online content. We are also working on a redesign of the main site, less than a year from its initial launch. The Monitor, the new AOI newsletter which will debut in the coming days, already has a hundreds of readers opting in for free subscriptions (you can sign up on the AOI main page), And you will see this blog is expanding its reach with new writers and timely posts on Orthodox Christian life in the “public square.” Stay tuned!

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Orthodox Women in the Ecumenical Movement

An Inter-Orthodox Consultation, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches, held a program titled, “Participation of Orthodox Women in the Ecumenical Movement: Past, Present, Future” at the Volos Academy for Theological Studies, Greece, from June 8-12. The meeting brought together some 45 women from Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and North America. They discussed the participation, ministry and concerns of Orthodox women in the church and in the ecumenical movement.

According to the WCC report, participants at the consultation recommended undertaking a full assessment of the current situation and needs of Orthodox women, given the many changes that have taken place over the last decade, as well as the development of a framework for future action. “We see the need to identify, together with our church leadership, the ways and instruments to implement decisions and recommendations of women’s consultations in our churches,” the participants stated in a report on the deliberations.

Photos from the meeting are posted here. Participants said that “many of the concerns of women have not yet been fully addressed within the life of the Church and are still relevant today.” They recommended the following:

— a need for better access to and funding for Orthodox women to study theology and then, if desired, to have the opportunity for employment within the Church
— a need to support pastoral care ministries by Orthodox women and to others (e.g. hospice, hospital, nursing home, prison and other institutional, community and military chaplaincies) and equip women for this ministry
— a need for women to be included in decision making processes in the administrative bodies of their churches
— a need to address the understanding of women’s biology and the dignity of women, including the prayers and practices associated with women’s menstrual cycle, childbirth, 40-day churching, miscarriages, etc.
— a yearning for women to be admitted into the “minor orders” (e.g. altar server, blessed reader, chanter, etc.) and newer ministries (e.g. preacher) to more fully serve within the liturgical assembly and other ministries and to better serve the needs of women and men in the Church
— a holy desire for the restoration of the order of Deaconess and a rejuvenation of all diaconal work

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“On the Advantages of Dying Young”

Jonathan David Price, editor of “The Clarion Review” (published by AOI) wrote the essay “On the Advantages of Dying Young “, that was recently published in First Principles (“the home of American intellectual conservatism”).

Price writes: There is so much talk about the advantages of long life nowadays that when confronted with “tragic” young deaths our only response is pity. Obsession with longevity is no longer merely an existential anxiety; lifespan has even become a key measure of the health of nations. We are concerned with it collectively. And since quantity of life is what we value, death is the enemy. There is no such thing as a good death at any age, much less in youth. . . .

Read the essay in the First Principles Journal.

This essay was also blogged by Benjamin MacConchie:

The Theological Roots of Nazism and Stalinism


Ideology, writes Alain Besancon in “A Century of Horrors: Communism, Nazism, and the Uniqueness of the Shoah” is:

…a doctrine that, in exchange for conversion, promise a temporal salvation that claims to conform to a cosmic order whose
evolution has been scientifically deciphered and requires political practice aimed at radically transforming society.

The definition captures in a nutshell Nazism and Communism’s chief aim: the radical transformation of culture through a radical break with history and values, all the while presenting the ideology as the next evolutionary step in a march of progress. The definition has theological implications, but until now the theological dimension of perhaps the most brutal century of Western history has been only marginally explored.

Besancon changes that. He compares Nazism to Communism, particularly their inner logic and structure, frames them in a cultural context (Germany and Russia mostly with small and insightful forays into Chinese Communism among others), and examines in great detail the transcendent claims they sought to supplant in their appeals to ethnic purity and/or pseudo-scientific claims (there is a lot of the myth of progress evident here).

Two historical questions occupy much of Bensancon’s analysis: what motivated the destruction of Judaism as a religion and race; why such relentless and brutal persecution of Christian believers in Russia? Further on Bensancon asks (which will provoke the debate about his book): is the slaughter of 6 million Jews (alongside the 7 million non-Jews) in Nazi Germany of a different character than the slaughter of 30-60 million Russians and others in Communist Russia? Bensancon argues yes, but is careful to point out that the distinction is not one of the nature of the suffering (one must speak of the suffering of others with great discernment; only fools walk this ground without caution), but the nature — the evil character — of these ideologies particularly in terms of the new culture they wanted to create.

Read it if you want to understand the broader currents that shaped the world in the last century.

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The Late, Refined Flower of Culture

Russian emigre philosopher Georgy Fedotov (1888-1951) proposed two basic principles for all of the freedoms by which modern democracy lives. First, and most valuable, there are the freedoms of “conviction” — in speech, in print, and in organized social activity. These freedoms, Fedotov asserted, developed out of the freedom of faith. The other principle of freedom “defends the individual from the arbitrary will of the state (which is independent of questions of conscience and thought) — freedom from arbitrary arrest and punishment, from insult, plundering and coercion on the part of the organs of power … ”

In an ideal world, all of these freedoms would be present. But Fedotov also cautioned that “freedom is the late, refined flower of culture.”

For the flower to bloom, the roots need to be watered. A free society, from the ground up, requires a respect for the rule of law, a judiciary and police force that aren’t easily bought, a political culture that knows how to rid itself of corruption, and a vigorous free press to keep the pols and bureaucrats honest. I would also add a liberal measure of economic freedom and property rights that secure wealth from the “arbitrary” plunder of the government.

All of which gets us back to Russia. In a interview this week in the Financial Times, President-elect Dmitry Medvedev pledged to root out the “legal nihilism” that plagues his country. Excerpt:

[Medvedev’s] starting point is his legal background – he is, he says, “perhaps too much of a lawyer”. Meticulous and precise, he sees almost every issue through the prism of legal thinking. But behind the occasionally laboured language lies a deeper goal. Mr Medvedev says he wants to do what no Russian leader has done before: embed the rule of law in Russian society.

“It is a monumental task,” he agrees, switching momentarily to English. “Russia is a country where people don’t like to observe the law. It is, as they say, a country of legal nihilism.”

The pledge to overcome “legal nihilism” became a central part of Mr Medvedev’s low-key election campaign. It seems a restatement of Mr Putin’s own promise eight years ago to establish a “dictatorship of laws”, although critics say Mr Putin delivered too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Even today, Russians quote the 19th-century satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s aphorism that “the severity of Russian laws is alleviated by the lack of obligation to fulfill them”. The result is a society plagued by endemic corruption, arbitrary use of the law by the state against individuals or companies – and by companies against each other – and a judiciary that has never known genuine independence.

To paraphrase, all democracy is local. One of the strengths of the American democratic tradition is its intensely local nature. Most Americans’ experience with democracy happens when they vote for a judge, attend a school board meeting, or run afoul of the local traffic cop. If democracy doesn’t work at this level, it doesn’t work at all. As Medvedev pointed out to his interviewers: “When a citizen gives a bribe to the traffic police, it probably does not enter his head that he is committing a crime … People should think about this.”

But bribing a cop is a moral issue, just as much as it is, if not exactly a political crime, then a seemingly simple act of convenience. Morality cannot be legislated, but it can be taught and for this we need the Church and the family and those other neighborhood groups, charities, and small businesses, that act as civic training grounds and make up a healthy community. Edmund Burke called these “the little platoons” of society.

In a new article on faith and politics, Russian Patriarch Alexy II noted that “building a society or a government without God is doomed to failure. The history of the twentieth century testifies to this.” This is not a call for theocracy, caesaropapism, or imperial symphony. It is a spiritually pragmatic judgment that those who run a government — it is after all a human institution and not an abstraction — cannot function properly and serve the people without getting its bearings, its orientation, to the Truth. Does that sound terribly idealistic? If it seems so, just pay attention to what usually goes on in Washington. Or maybe even Detroit.

Patriarch Alexy raises the issue of faith as a force in political life. But it must not be used as a prop by politicians, nor should religious leaders be complicit in such a degradation:

The secularisation of political consciousness has had quite a negative impact on the relationship between politics and religion. The utilitarian approach to religion is dangerous for politicians. I would like to remind all those who would consider using or have already tried to use the ‘religious resource’ of a comment from the nineteenth-century Russian publicist and philosopher Yuri Samarin, who wrote: “Faith is not a stick, and in the hands of those who use it as a stick to defend themselves or frighten others, it crumbles into splinters.”

Once, after a sermon, representatives of various political trends went up to the priest to thank him for the support he bad shown. Pleasing anyone was the last thing he had had in mind! It is simply that the church has always talked of values close to every human being — love for one’s neighbour and one’s country, charity and justice, decency and responsibility.

Good luck to President-elect Medvedev. In light of the witness of Russian history he is, you might say, ambitious. Perhaps the words of James Madison, in the Federalist Papers, will give him heart:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

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