Church and State in the Modern World, Part II

If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could then better judge what to do, and how to do it.
—Abraham Lincoln, June 16, 1858 (in his “House Divided” speech)

See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil.
—Ephesians 5:15-16

As we have already seen, the intersection of Church and state in our postmodern culture is deeply problematic. In this post, we’ll look more directly at some of the most troubling current issues facing the Church, and ponder what comes next. We will consider two main questions: 1) Who can gainsay Caesar?—Gay marriage (in Denmark) and adoption (in the UK) are now enforced by the state, together with the similar case of the HHS mandate (in the US);  2)Does the separation of Church and state protect or endanger the Church?—We will examine the case of IRS tax code and “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” as well as the concept more generally.

1. Gay Marriage, Gay Adoption, and the HHS Mandate

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In June 2012 Danish parliament upheld the unrestricted rights of homosexuals to marry in the church of their choice.[1] While individual priests are permitted to decline to perform such nuptials, their bishops have no such choice, and must find a replacement who will perform the marriage. Anyone not totally beguiled by the false a priori synthetic judgment “choice = a positive moral good” that so muddles postmodern ethics can clearly see: this is wrong. I have not yet read what legal recourse Denmark will take if they find a bishop with integrity.

A similar situation has already reached a showdown. Legislation passed in the United Kingdom in January 2009 prohibited adoption agencies from refusing services to gay couples. Since then, all twelve of the Roman Catholic adoption agencies in Great Britain were forced to close.[2] This is a profoundly disturbing case. Catholic adoption services accounted for approximately 80% of adoptions in the UK. Study after study has shown that homosexuals comprise roughly 4–5% of nearly any demographic. Of that cross section of the population, the number of homosexuals who are in a relationship and seeking to adopt a child clearly drops to well below 1% of the population. Yet for this miniscule group, the vast majority of adoptions in the UK have been forcibly stopped. (When this consideration leads to the likelihood—and number—of increased abortions in the UK, the Christian conscience burns.) We will turn to one more sobering case, far closer to home.Image

On January 20, 2012 the Health and Human Services secretary announced a new mandate: all health plans must provide FDA approved contraception at no cost. While religious bodies themselves are exempt, their nonprofit institutions are not. As in Britain, this imperils the integrity of the extensive Catholic charitable work in our country. The Blunt Amendment sought to give religious employers freedom of conscience, but it was voted down 51–48 in the Senate.

All three cases reveal a striking—and chilling—new interpretation of the separation of Church and state. Our thoughts are our own, but our actions are strictly regulated. What happens in Church, stays in Church. Out in the “real world” we are increasingly legally required to play by society’s rules. But do we even have freedom within the walls of our churches? Already we saw this threatened with Danish legislation, but a little known bit of tax law makes matters more complicated in the US as well.

2. Separation of Church and State and Free Speech

A law written in the days of Lyndon B. Johnson surprisingly curtails the freedom of speech given to faith leaders. If a priest endorses a specific political candidate from the pulpit, he forfeits his tax exempt status. Since the time of Constantine, priests and bishops have enjoyed at least some measure of tax exemption, and traditionally the separation of Church and state has been conceived as a means of protecting churches. Yet this law seeks to protect the state from Church leaders’ influence over their flocks. It could be argued that it protects the possibly vulnerable faithful from demagoguery. Yet the modern world has set limit upon limit as to what the Church may dictate. The Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1930 banished the Church’s teaching from the bedroom, and within decades nearly the entire Christian world accepted this novel stance. Likewise our tax code erects a “wall of separation”—Jefferson’s phrase, tantalizingly reminiscent of Ephesians 2—between the homily and the ballot box. In the final analysis, a Church that cannot tell you what to do is no Church at all.

American pastors have been challenging this law. Since 2008 a group called the Alliance Defending Freedom have been staging “Pulpit Freedom Sunday,” in which all members preach an overtly political sermon, endorsing a specific candidate. They are attempting to provoke the IRS to action, leading to a court case. In this way they hope to overturn the law as unconstitutional. Fr Josiah Trenham has joined forces with this movement, and given the debate an Orthodox voice.[3]

In light of all these recent events, we must ask a simple question:

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If our culture continues to move in the direction it has chosen, the actions of the Church in the secular sphere—at least in an official, institutional, and legally recognized way—will likely cease. If “hate speech” and “marriage rights” continue to be expanded, priests and bishops face a choice: lose all freedom of conscience in preaching and even in the exercise of sacerdotal ministry, or accept that the Church must lose status as a legally recognized and tax exempt nonprofit religious entity. But will this be enough? Can we remain “under the radar”?

I will end by being deliberately provocative—provocative, but not fear-mongering (too many signs of a clear and present danger exist to justify that epithet). Why should we expect to recuse ourselves from an entire society without repercussions? Already the Obama administration’s counter-terrorist memoranda list “single-issue” groups—and gives as its first example “anti-abortion”—as pressing domestic terror threats.[4]

We must not be naïve, for our age has a unique character. If we face the possibility of persecution and martyrdom, it will not be like the ancient martyrs. In the pre-modern era, a tyrant had exhausted his options with the death penalty (as Plutarch relates of Draco: he thought death fitting for minor crimes, and for the more serious ones, he had no greater punishment). Not so the modern world. Belying our stale platitudes praising “coexistence” and “tolerance,” there exists a more radical push for conformity of thought than has ever existed in the history of the world. We no longer kill dissidents. We “cure” them. Recall O’Brien’s explanation of the “Ministry of Love” to Winston in 1984:

No! Not merely to extract your confession, not to punish you. Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane! …We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.

This is not only a matter of fiction. Our Church has witnessed the horrors of Communist Romania’s Pitesti, the grueling and painstaking work of brainwashing dissidents. All Orthodox should know of the experiences of the modern confessors Fr George Calciu and Fr Roman Braga.

It is fitting to end with these two men. They simultaneously represent two dramatic facts. First, we must not be complacent, for our age has produced rapid and unprecedentedly brutal persecutions for those who serve Christ. But secondly, and far more importantly, these two man stand as beacons of grace, compassion, and the triumph of love over the most shocking and corrosive forms of hate. This present time is capable of profound evil, but thanks be to God, the Gospel still shines forth. Precisely such evil itself has helped to manifest new exemplars of sanctity. The God who trampled down death by death works all things for the good of those who love him.


[3]http://ancientfaith.com/podcasts/thearena/a_fight_for_our_nations_soul_an_interview_with_pastor_jim_garlow In this podcast, Fr Josiah Trenham interviews megachurch pastor Jim Garlow, and speaks about Pulpit Freedom Sunday, as well as the more general theme of how conservative Christianity can engage our culture and our political milieu.

[4] http://start.umd.edu/start/publications/research_briefs/LaFree_Bersani_HotSpotsOfUSTerrorism.pdf This is a pdf of the document (see page 10 for the reference to “single issue groups” such as “anti-abortion”). This is altogether unsettling when joined with Obama’s penchant for claiming the right to assassinate citizens without trial. See: http://msnbcmedia.msn.com/i/msnbc/sections/news/020413_DOJ_White_Paper.pdf (documents pertaining to the purportedly lawful assassination of US citizens would, ideally, be far more specific—this document, however, is riddled with doublespeak and “elastic clauses”).

 
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Church and State in the Modern World, Part I

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This image is not a satire. It is the work of Br. Robert Lentz, OFM, a Byzantine Catholic monk. His icons celebrate the cultural norms of the postmodern world, most notably its emphasis on multiculturalism—he depicts Christ Pantokrator as an Apache Shaman and Christ Agia Sophia as an Indian woman holding the Venus of Willendorf— and new sexual norms—he depicts Ss Boris the passion bearer and his servant George, Sergius and Bacchus, and David and Jonathon as homosexuals.

Dramatic revolutions swept the globe in the past century. Just one hundred years ago, two rulers called themselves “Caesar” (the Tsar and the Kaiser), and the only acceptable form of sexual activity in the western world was securely within the context of heterosexual marriage. The sociopolitical landscape has radically changed, and the Church must learn to adapt both to these new political and social realities. In this first blog post, we will look at the current challenges that face the Church as it approaches the modern issues of free speech and the separation of Church and state. This is particularly pressing in the recent Pussy Riot case and the push for the recognition of gay marriage. Both Church and state are acting quite differently in Russia and in America.

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May 21, 2012—Two magazine covers, celebrating President Obama’s support for gay marriage.

February 21, 2012—Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” in Christ the Saviour Cathedral, Moscow.

ImageFEMEN (Фемен) protesting the Pussy Riot trial in Kiev by attacking Patriarch Kirill and cutting down a cross.

The above events are not very distinct in many minds. One ultra-conservative Orthodox group called the Pchyolki both advocates violence to protect churches from further Pussy Riot-style protests, and calls for the return of the state of Alaska to Russia, due to Obama’s support for gay marriage. Their case did not see its day in court, due to technicalities when filing, and on the whole they are sure to be relegated to the back pages and the oddities sections of the news.[1] Yet this should not obscure the fact that a genuine and fundamental opposition exists between the spirit of the age and the mind of the Church. Further, the secular state in Russia and in the west (both Western Europe and America) have reacted in strikingly different ways, revealing deep rooted differences in their views of free speech and democracy itself.

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A recent opinion piece in the Moscow Times by Russian politician Sergei Markov provides trenchant analysis of this disparity in political outlook.[2] Aside from his specific comments on the bill banning homosexual propaganda, he makes two general observations. First, he notes that the West affirms a rather self-serving model of history. All social and political progress is linear, essentially deterministic, and has its fulfillment in a liberal democracy similar to America or Western Europe. On this view, Russia’s progress was retarded by its Communist interlude, but in the inexorable march of time, it will come to resemble the West more and more. This notion distorts western perceptions of Russian democracy. We see its perceived shortcomings as vestiges of a brutish past remaining in a transitional state, soon to be shed by this Slavic Archaeopteryx. We are thus blinded to the fundamental difference between western and Russian types of democracy. This is Markov’s second point. Russia sees a democracy as protecting the interests and values of the majority, whereas he claims a western liberal democracy seeks to protect the interests and values of minorities while attempting to forestall and ignore the interests of the majority, in the belief that eventually any majority will deteriorate into further subsets of minorities. In his analysis, Russia is not “backward,” as so many claim when they speak of recent developments vis-à-vis Pussy Riot, the gay propaganda bill, and adoption laws. They are merely being consistent with their concept of democracy.[3]

While this may serve the interests of the Church in Russia in this particular instance, since the sexual values of the majority are still consonant with the teachings of the Church, it is not the case in the West. Orthodox in this part of the world will have to find a different way of relating to, and relying on, the state. I will consider this, as well as the possible future of Church-state relations in the West, in my next blog post.


[3] It takes only a moment’s thought to recognize that Russia’s “backward” democracy is, in fact, far closer to the pure concept of a democracy. Yet democracy has become a mere term of approval for most moderns. C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape observed this wittily and chillingly in “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”: “”Democracy is the word with which you must lead them by the nose. The good work which our philological experts have already done in the corruption of human language makes it unnecessary to warn you that they should never be allowed to give this word a clear and definable meaning. They won’t. It will never occur to them that democracy is properly the name of a political system, even a system of voting, and that this has only the most remote and tenuous connection with what you are trying to sell them. Nor of course must they ever be allowed to raise Aristotle’s question: whether “democratic behaviour” means the behaviour that democracies like or the behaviour that will preserve a democracy. For if they did, it could hardly fail to occur to them that these need not be the same. You are to use the word purely as an incantation; if you like, purely for its selling power. It is a name they venerate.”

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Church, State, and Violence in Medieval Russia

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Left: Ss Vladimir, Boris, and Gleb (16th c. icon). Right: St Sergius of Radonezh (15th c. embroidered icon).

In medieval Russia, Church and state attitudes toward violence were varied enough to provide precedents for either a Gandhi or a jihadi. We will look at radically different events in two periods: first Great Prince Vladimir and his sons Boris and Gleb and their legacy, then Ss Sergius of Radonezh and Dmitri Donskoi, together with Alexander Peresvet.

I. Ss Vladimir, Boris, and Gleb in Early Kievan Rus

ImageThe Baptism of Rus by Viktor Vasnetsov (1896).

Modern historians question Vladimir’s motives for conversion, yet his reign as a Christian monarch exemplified the Gospel—sometimes beyond the bounds of political practicality. In one account of his Life, Vladimir attempted to free all prisoners, and had to be reminded by his bishops that perhaps not all prisoners were so thoroughly converted as their prince. Every time Vladimir gave a feast, he would distribute alms to the poor. This legacy was embraced by two of his sons: Boris and Gleb. Unfortunately, their fidelity to the Gospel was brought to light by another brother’s less Christian behavior.

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Ss Boris and Gleb (Old Believer brass and enamel icon, c. 1800).

After Vladimir’s death in 1015, his son Svyatopolk sought to consolidate power. To ensure this he hunted down and killed his brothers Boris and Gleb. They offered no resistance, choosing to be killed rather than to kill. They sacrificed their lives to avoid civil war, and in so doing they became the first saints to be honored in Russia. This opened a new category of sanctity: “passion bearers”—those who, by eschewing violence, imitate Christ in their self-emptying (cf Phil 2:7) death.

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From the Life of Boris and Gleb (from “Sylvester’s Book,” a 14th c. MS).

This was not an isolated case. It seems to represent a broader attitude toward violence in early Kievan Rus. While Vladimir did not do away with the death penalty, soon after the princes of Kiev rejected it, along with corporal punishment (this was codified by the thirteenth century in the Russkaya Pravda, the legal code of Kievan Rus). Eventually Russia re-instituted the death penalty, but has since come full circle. At present, another Vladimir is in power, and the death penalty has once more been abolished.

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St Nicholas of Myra Saves Three Innocents from Death by Ilya Repin (1888).

The work above was painted by Repin to register his opinion in the midst of late nineteenth century debates over capital punishment in Russia. However, St Nicholas stands—literally—as a striking example of the Church’s ancient tradition regarding violence, at least on the part of clerics. Dating back to the pastoral epistles, a clergyman was prohibited from being a “striker” (πλήκτην—1 Tim 3:3, Titus 1:7). At the Council of Nicea, a fed up Nicholas slapped Arius and was promptly deposed. The Apostolic Constitutions canons—quite possibly referring to this encounter—clearly stipulate: “If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon shall strike any of the faithful who have sinned, or of the unbelievers who have done wrong… we command that he be deposed” (Canon 27 [28]). Despite this clear tradition, we find something quite different in our next period.

II. Ss Sergius and Dmitri Donskoi—The Battle of Kulikovo

ImageDmitri Donskoi is blessed by St Sergius in Trinity-Sergius Lavra by Ernst Lissner (1907).

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The same scene depicted in the more idealized statuary of present day Sergei Pasad.

St Sergius of Radonezh, a defining figure in the era of the rise of Muscovy, blessed Dmitri Donskoi to go into battle against the Tatars. Not only did he bless this layman—a relatively benign action if we grant a form of “just war” theology long held in the Orthodox Church—he sent three schemamonks to go with him.

At the beginning of the Battle of Kulikovo (September 8, 1380), two champions did battle on the plain. The Russian champion was Alexander Peresvet, one of St Sergius’ schemamonks. Both he and the Tatar champion Temir-murza were killed, but according to legend Peresvet remained in his saddle, while his opponent fell to the ground. The scene has entered into the collective consciousness of Russia, and continues to be immortalized in works of art.

ImageDuel on the Kulikovo Field by Avilov Mikhail (1943).

ImageThe single combat of Peresvet against Chelubei before the Battle of Kulikovo by Viktor Vasnetsov (1914).

ImagePeresvet victory by Ryzhenko Pavel Viktorovich (2005).

What can we make of this event? It contrasts sharply with the Church’s canonical norms, and stands in even stronger contrast with the example of the princes Boris and Gleb. In the end, neither example is truly normative for the broader history of the Church. Boris and Gleb’s pacifism may be laudable, but it was not incumbent on others. Likewise St Sergius’ blessing may have been justified in his specific context, but it remains a quite unique case. As John of the Ladder admonishes: “To admire the labor of the saints is good; to emulate them wins salvation; but to wish suddenly to imitate their life in every point is unreasonable and impossible” (Step 4, 42). Exceptions do not form the rule. Kulikovo marks a unique point in Russian history. As Lev Gumilev argues, “Russians went to the Kulikovo field as citizens of various principalities and returned as a united Russian nation.”

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It Don’t Mean a Thing—Orthodoxy’s First Encounter with Democracy

It is a commonplace observation that the Orthodox Church is in relatively new and uncharted waters, finding itself in a world devoid of Orthodox Empire. Until 1917 Russia was under the Tsars, and even the downfall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 is quite fresh in the consciousness of many Greeks. The question looms: How should the Church interact with the state in this new political world? However, many would be shocked to learn that the Church has already existed in a democracy in the least expected place: medieval Russia.

Solon’s Athens claims pride of place in the democracies of history, but a far less known form of democracy was much longer lasting. For centuries Germanic and Scandinavian peoples met in voting legislative bodies called “Things” (this is the root of our English word as well—a similar transformation occurred when the Latin causa—“lawsuit”—became the modern Italian and Spanish word cosa, or the French word chose—which now mean “thing”).

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The victory column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome (erected 193 AD). Detail: The meeting of a Germanic thing (with artist’s rendering).

Through the aggressive expansion of the Viking peoples, things came to exercise an extremely wide influence. Not only do the modern parliaments of Iceland, Denmark, and Norway all contain the word “thing”— Alþingi, Folketing, and Storting, respectively (meaning “General Thing,” “Thing of the People,” and Great Thing”)—as far west as the Isle of Man, parliament is called Tynwald (in Manx, Tinvaal) or “Thing Meadow,” because to this day they meet in the open air.

It has been convincingly hypothesized that the Varangians (i.e. Vikings) brought this form of government to the Kievan principalities. While many cities had things—called veche (вече) in Russian—that exercised legislative and judicial powers, Novgorod was the high water mark of the power of the veche. Its princes were appointed by the great prince in Kiev until 1136, when the people of Novgorod expelled Prince Vsevolod Mstislavich. After this point, they were able to appoint and dismiss their own princes on a frequent basis, although this was never without some outside influence. The veche represented a broad spectrum of society. In theory, anyone could ring the veche bell, and boyars, merchants, and ordinary citizens would assemble in front of the cathedral of Holy Wisdom to discuss and to vote.

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Pskov Veche by Vasnetsov (1909).

However democratic the Republic of Novgorod became, a monarchical ethos is hard to shake, and the people called their city-state “Lord Novgorod the Great” (Господин Великий Новгород). This remarkable chapter in Russian history lasted until 1478, when Ivan III took over the city. He symbolically removed the veche bell, signaling the end of an era.

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Veche bell removed by Ivan III (16th century miniature).

In this three hundred and forty-two year Republic (one hundred and five years older than the United States of America), how did the Church interact with an almost purely democratic state? Disappointingly for many moderns who seek an object lesson for our own times, the Church served as a vestige of monarchy. At the very least, the Archbishop of Novgorod was closely involved with the boyars in administering matters of state. But many scholars believe that the archbishop himself became the de facto executive branch of the state. A mere glance at the city of Novgorod’s coat of arms seems to bolster this claim.

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Though this form of the coat of arms was approved in 1781 by Catherine II, it had already begun to to take shape in the decades immediately following the fall of the Republic of Novgorod, and sought to evoke its bygone glory. The heraldic emphasis is clear: the throne, the staffs, and the trikheri are all images of the bishop’s office.

While medieval Novgorod may not hold any immediate relevance to modern relations between Church and state (unless Barack Obama is willing to step down and let an Orthodox bishop take the helm), it remains a fascinating time and place, whose rich yet obscure history deserves further research.

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Church and State: Who Unified Whom?

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Christ flanked by Emperor Constantine IX (1042–1055) and Empress Zoe.

It is a commonplace among moderns that Emperor Constantine used the Christian faith for political leverage to unite the Empire. Certainly this was one effect of his actions, but if this had been his plan all along it would have been rather foolish. At the time of the Edict of Milan, Christians accounted for 15% of the population at most (nearly the same as blacks or Hispanics in the United States). Later Emperors, who lived in a more Christianized society are even less likely to have had purely Machiavellian motives.

While Justinian I certainly sought to politically unify the Empire and expand its territories, he also seems to have harbored a genuine zeal for Church unity. The Monogenēs hymn is purported to have been written as an (ineffective) overture to the monophysites. From the earliest imperial attempts to ensure unity (e.g. Constantine’s efforts to resolve the Donatist schism and the Arian controversy) through the later patristic era (e.g. Heraclius’ introduction of monothelitism, again seeking to woo the monophysites), the Emperors often had limited success. Still, they mostly seemed to have honestly held a concern for Christian unity in addition to more politically grounded motives. Justinian was wise to choose hymnody. In the end, the liturgical life of the Orthodox Church helped to bind together an imperial identity that no political propaganda could accomplish.

In his book, The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church, Fr John Meyendorff notes that the liturgy can be “considered as a tool of Byzantine cultural, religious, and to some degree, political expansion in the Middle East and throughout Eastern Europe. Indeed, the role of the liturgy [served] as a major—or perhaps the major—means through which Byzantine civilization was, on the one hand, maintained in the face of Islamic domination in the Middle East and, on the other hand, transmitted to the barbarians in the north and northwest[.]”[1] Whatever unity the Emperors sought to establish and protect for the Church, she returned the favor in full, with interest.

Meyendorff further notes that in the West, growing notions of the monolithic authority of the papacy relegated the liturgy to a lesser semiotic role that was subject to ecclesiastical change by fiat, “whereas… Eastern Christianity visualized the liturgy as an independent authoritative source and criterion of faith and ethics.”[2] He argues that Neo-Platonic thought accounts for this: The Byzantines saw the liturgy as the instantiation of a heavenly prototype, making the thought of “mere ritual” deviation unintelligible. I would argue that, in addition to this, the Byzantine attitude was also shaped by the need for unity. It provided what was needed, but was itself shaped by this need. Once outside an imperial context, liturgical diversity was not only given lip service (e.g. St Mark Eugenikos at Florence), but also put into practice by modern saints in quite distinct situations (e.g. St. Nektarios in the Pentapolis region of Egypt re-introducing St. Mark’s Liturgy, and St. John Maximovitch organizing the French Orthodox Church).

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Consecration of the French bishop of Saint-Denis by St John Maximovitch (1964).

[1] John Meyendorff, The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982), 117.
[2] Meyendorff, Byzantine Legacy, 123.

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Byzantium’s Facebook Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

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The Church’s relationship with the state was always complex. How could Christians, whose “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20), have an uncomplicated attitude toward rulers who Paul claimed were “appointed by God” (Rom 13:4)? This dynamic tension between Church and state is not some post-Constantinian compromise that sullied the spotless bride. Later history simply made these early crosscurrents more prominent. Jesus’ words—“Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription does it have?” (Lk 20:24)—became quite a bit trickier to understand when coins looked like this:

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(Coin of Justinian II, from his first reign: 685–695)

This interplay between Church and state makes the historian’s task difficult. We cannot use anachronistic standards to interpret the events of the past, yet events seldom make sense apart from later history. In the remainder of this post, we’ll look at a pair of parallel timelines, and attempt to distinguish which series of events came to be seen as normative and which came to be seen as aberrant. How do we distinguish the two?

Timeline 1—A theological controversy arose, so a council was called in the eighth century, which affirmed the first six ecumenical councils. The council’s decisions were then questioned and the controversy reignited. Finally, approximately sixty years later, the eighth century council was re-affirmed as the seventh ecumenical council.

(Spoiler alert: Timeline 2 is word-for-word identical.)

Timeline 2—A theological controversy arose, so a council was called in the eighth century, which affirmed the first six ecumenical councils. The council’s decisions were then questioned and the controversy reignited. Finally, about sixty years later, the eighth century council was re-affirmed as the seventh ecumenical council.

They are uncannily similar, yet these two series of events represent opposite views. The first represents iconoclast activities (the council of Hieria in 754 and its affirmation in 815), and the second, the Orthodox iconodule response to them (the second Council of Nicaea in 787 and its affirmation in 843). These doppelganger timelines call into question our ability to recognize the Church in history. We rely on familiar criteria (e.g. the imperial Church, the conciliar Church, the Church which claims continuity with the past, etc), yet none are adequate. What makes Nicaea II an ecumenical council, as opposed to Hieria?

Our answer to this question sounds weak. But from either a historical or an ecclesiological perspective, we call “ecumenical” the council that everyone remembers as ecumenical. From the historian’s perspective, the platitude proves true: “History is written by the victors.” But this should not trouble us theologically, either. After all, the scriptures hold that “a tree is known by its fruit” (Mt 12:33) and “wisdom is justified by her children” (Lk 7:35). The entire dynamic of the Gospel is one of hindsight—“When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (Jn 2:22). The task of recounting Church history straddles the boundary between theology and history, but in this case both enterprises share a backward-glancing methodology.

This may not be welcome news for those planning a Great Council in the near future. Nevertheless, if we are asked whether the council is “ecumenical” or not, the only safe answer is: “Ask my great-great-grandchildren.” In some matters, only time will tell.

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History in the Light of Christ

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The historian faces formidable foes. While he judges the past with impunity, he may be found wanting when future generations judge him in their own histories (Herodotus has been called both “the Father of History” and the “Father of Lies”). Eusebius, the first Church historian, was guilty of heresy, not mere lying. He did not belong to a fringe or radical group—at the time Arians formed the majority party. In our democratic age it seems downright unfair to charge a man with heresy for betting on the then-winning team. But truth is undemocratic, and the faith of Athanasius contra mundum prevailed.

This danger, however, is not strictly historical. Eusebius’ Arianism is bad theology, not bad history. Christian theologians face a problem at the heart of history itself. Simply put: How do we understand history? We believe in a God made flesh, who entered history at a very specific point—“in those days… [when] there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus… when Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (Lk 2:1–2). C.S. Lewis famously called this a myth become fact:

The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be a myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences.[1]

However, this suggestive description of the incarnation leaves the question of history itself unresolved. “The world has become mingled with God” (St. Isaac of Syria[2]), but how do we describe such a world?

On the one hand, the Christian view of history has no choice. It must distinguish itself from an exclusively secular view of history. As Vladimir Lossky cautions:

For the ‘historian of the Church’ the religious factor disappears and finds itself displaced by others; such… as the play of political or social interests, the part played by racial or cultural conditions, considered as determining factors in the life of the Church. We think ourselves shrewder, more up to date, in invoking these factors as the true guiding forces of ecclesiastical history. While recognizing their importance, a Christian historian can scarcely resign himself to regarding them otherwise than as accidental to the essential nature of the Church.[3]

This insight is key, but requires a further warning, provided by Fr. Georges Florovsky:

The Christian historian will attempt to reveal the actual course of events in the light of his Christian knowledge of man, but will be slow and cautious in detecting the “providential” structure of actual history, in any detail. Even in the history of the Church “the hand of Providence” is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of history. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand… human activities, in the bewildering variety in which they appear to a human observer.[4]

We must achieve a delicate balance, lest our thinking devolve into mere skeptical worldliness or credulity that borders upon superstition. By following this royal road we can begin to examine the long and complex history of the Orthodox Church’s relation to the state.


[1] From “Myth Became Fact,” God in the Dock, pg 66–67 (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, MI).

[2] The Prayers of Saint Isaac the Syrian, pg 18 (Divine Ascent Press: Manton, CA). Quoted by Met. Hilarion Alfeyev in “The Incarnation of the Word and the deification of man according to St Isaac of Ninevah” (http://orthodoxeurope.org/page/11/1/16.aspx).

[3] Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, pg 13 (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY).

[4] Quoted by Jaroslav Pelikan in “The Predicament of the Christian Historian” (http://jtlth.blogspot.com/2008/05/predicament-of-christian-historian1.html).

 

 

 

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