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Towards a theology of religions

Since the August 2007 Synchroblog on Christianity inclusive or exclusive, I’ve posted several more-or-less connected pieces on the general theme of Theology of religion. Now it is time to wind up the series, or at least to draw together the threads of this long rambling discourse, though I have no illusions that this will be the last word on the subject, even from me.

In the second posting in the series I pointed out that

Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying

From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?

Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applies to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.

Throughout the series I have maintained that the question whether Christianity is, or should be inclusive, exclusive or pluralist is the wrong question as far as “theology of religion” is concerned, as is the related question whether “salvation” is to be found in other religions.

I have also tried to show that there is not one single “theology of religion”; instead there are “theologies of religions”. A Christian theology of Islam will not be the same as a Christian theology of Buddhism or a Christian theology of neopaganism. An Islamic theology of Christianity will not be the same as an Islamic theology of Buddhism or an Islamic theology of neopaganism. One Islamic theology of Buddhism may have been expressed by the Taliban’s destruction of Buddha statues by artillery bombardment, but the fact that the statues existed for hundreds of years in a predominantly Muslim society shows that the Taliban’s response was not the only Islamic theology of Buddhism.

I should also point out that what I say here is not part of the dogmatic theology of the Orthodox Church. Though I write as an Orthodox Christian, this is not a statement of official Orthodox teaching. It is rather a theologoumenon, an opinion put forward for discussion.

I take as a starting point the previous article in the series, from the September 2007 synchroblog, on Christianity, paganism and literature, in which I looked at the views implied in the works of members of the literary group known as the Inklings, and in particular C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. There I wrote

Consider, for example, C.S. Lewis’s The lion, the witch and the wardrobe. A child from the normal everyday world hides in a wardrobe during a game, and finds herself transported by magic into another world, where she has tea with a faun, a figure from ancient Roman pagan mythology. A faun is half human, half goat, and the encounter is an introduction to a world of intelligent talking animals – beavers with sewing machines and the like. Lewis has no hesitation in blending Christian and pagan mythology in his Narnian books. There is even salvation. Salvation is at the centre of the plot of the book, but one would have to look hard to find it attributed to any religion at all, Christian or pagan.

Of course Lewis was known as a Christian, and his conception of salvation is a Christian one, but in this particular book he does not deal with what seems to be the central question for many Western Christian “theologians of religion” – the question whether there is salvation in “other” religions.

The next book in the Narnian series, Prince Caspian, is even more populated with pagan deities – Bacchus and Silenus, nymphs and Maenads, and even a river god. Lewis does not identify these with the forces of evil – they are not “satanic”, as many Christians seem to think pagan deities ought to be (and many neopagans think that Christians think neopagans’ deities are). They are rather part of the army of liberation, and are themselves liberated from the powers of evil in the course of the story.

Now it might be argued that since Lewis had a classical education he incorporated these pagan deities simply for the sake of a good story. They featured in stories that he himself had enjoyed, so he incorporated them in stories that he wrote. But there is more to it than this.

In an earlier post, Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wrote:

Charles Williams, in his novel The place of the lion describes what happens when the powers get loose, and when men worship them independently of the power of God. C.S. Lewis sees them as belonging not just to human groups within the earth, but to the planets themselves, the principalities, archontes, princes he calls oyeresu, and each planet has its oyarsa, or planetary ruler, and this was the basis of astrology.

And someone responded

This paragraph is written as though this is a belief of CSL, not a creation of his imagination, which is what it is. CSL “sees” is not the same as believes. This is not ‘theology’ or even something approaching church doctrine held by CSL or CW for that matter. You are referencing here works of fiction, right?

Right, I am referencing works of fiction. But wrong, I am going to explore the doctrine expressed in these works of fiction. I could argue why I think such a procedure is justified, but it would take too long, and might require a post on its own, or even several posts. Suffice it to say that I believe that the works of the Inklings that I refer to are not simply fiction, but are mythical, and, as Nicolas Berdyaev has pointed out, “Myth is a reality immeasurably greater than concept.” I shall, perhaps foolishly, try to link some of these myths to concepts.

There are several indications in the fiction of the Inklings of the way in which they see various deities and spiritual forces and powers. The Narnian stories feature a river god, Bacchus and several others. Lewis’s “Space trilogy” features the ancient Graeco-Roman gods, Mars and Venus, under the names Malacandra and Perelandra, and several others. Charles Williams writes about the Tarot in The greater trumps, about Islam in Many dimension and about the principalities and powers in The place of the lion. Tolkien writes about the creation of the world in The Silmarillion, which also contains a mythical retelling of the Fall.

The Christian Symbol of Faith begins “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.” Among the invisible things are those to which Williams, Lewis and Tolkien have tried to give visible form in their fiction. The “Father Almighty” (Patera pantokratora, Pater omnipotens) has nothing to do with the “omnipotent god” of the atheists, and whether he can create a rock so heavy that he can’t lift it. It is a translation of the Hebrew YHWH Sabaoth, which can also be translated into English as “Lord of Hosts”. And what are the “hosts”? They are the “invisible things” that God has created.

These invisible things are described in various ways, and have been pictured in various ways by people. Sometimes they are described abstractly, love, beauty, power, strength, justice. Sometimes they have been represented symbolically in pictures, for example in the Greater Trumps of the Tarot, where there are cards representing force, justice, death and so on. At times they are represented by animals, as in Williams’s The place of the lion, as lion, snake, butterfly, eagle. In one scene Anthony Durrant asks if what Dora Wilmot saw was Aaron’s Rod that turned into a snake (Exodus 7:8-13). “I think the magicians of Pharaoh may have seen Miss Wilmot’s snake,” Mr Foster said, “and all their shapely wisdom have been swallowed by it, as the butterflies of the fields were taken into that butterfly this afternoon.”

Williams was writing fiction. Anthony Durrant, Miss Wilmot and Mr Foster are fictional characters in his book. But I think it is fair to say that Williams believed that the shapely wisdom of Pharaoh’s magicians was swallowed by the snake he described.

In Prince Caspian Lewis brings in Bacchus and the Maenads, dryads and fauns, and the river god. Such creatures are found in classical mythology, and Lewis, like many of his generation, and those of several generations before, had had a classical education. British poetry since the Renaissance had many classical references and allusions, and is sometimes difficult to understand without a knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. But this Renaissance classicism was cold and dead, like the bare marble statues of the gods, for decoration, not for worship. The temples were in ruins, or converted into churches (like the Pantheon in Rome), and even the old statues had lost the gaudy paint that once covered them in the temples.

But Lewis brings Bacchus and his devotees to life, in a fertility rite that produces a feast, and Susan says, “I wouldn’t have felt safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.”

Nymphs were spirits of nature, of trees and springs. Dryads were spirits of trees, sometimes appearing in human form. Nereids were spirits of the sea, though in modern Greek usage the term may be applied to any nymphs, and in some places, even today, people believe that whirlwinds are caused by nereides dancing. In classical times, before chopping down a tree, the spirit of the tree needed to be propitiated. In premodern hunting societies, in many parts of the world, when an animal is hunted for food, its spirit needs to be propitiated.

Lewis weaves this premodern element seamlessly into his story, and in this demonstrates a Christian theology of religion.

If God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good, then both the trees and their invisble spirits are part of the good creation. Wine, “that maketh glad the heart of man”, and Bacchus, the spirit of vineyards, are part of that good creation.

This, in part, answers the question with which this enquiry was begun. We explain the fact that the Milky Way is there by the doctrine of creation, and we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there by the same doctrine of creation. In another of his stories, The voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis introduces a retired star. ‘In our world,’ said Eustace, ‘a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is, but only what it is made of.’

The stars sing at the creation of Narnia, and in the Ainulindale 0f Tolkien they sing at the creation of Middle Earth, but even in our world God asks Job, ‘Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Who laid its cornerstone when all the stars of the morning were singing with joy, and the Sons of God in chorus were chanting praise?’ (Job 38:4-7).

So a Christian theology of religion, based on the doctrine of creation, could say that the gods of the Bhagavad Gita were there among them, joining in the chorus. And there among them too were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter, or as Lewis calls them, Viritrilbia, Perelandra, Malacandra, Lurga and Glund. Lewis calls them gods and angels, as do the Christian scriptures. In Christian parlance the term “heavenly host” could refer to either the stars of the sky, the angels of the heavens, or both.

At this point some might say, Wait, didn’t Boniface chop down the oak of Thor? Didn’t Christians go to their death rather than participate in the emperor cult? Didn’t missionaries call the gods of the heathen demons?

And the answer is, Yes, Christians did all these things.

St Justin Martyr, one of the earliest Christian writers to discuss the relation of the Christian faith to other religions, says:

We do not worship with many sacrifices and floral offerings the things men have made, set in temples, and called gods. We know that they are inanimate and lifeless and have not the form of God (for we do not think that God has that form which some say they reproduce in order to give honor to Him) — but have the names and shapes of those evil demons who have appeared [to men].

In Orthodox ikonography God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are never represented in material form. Jesus Christ, as the incarnate Son of God, is indeed represented graphically in ikons, because though “no one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18). During the iconoclastic controversy the iconophiles made their position clear: “an idol was the image of a creature which was worshipped as God, as was the case with the pagans.” The iconophiles relied a great deal on St Basil the Great’s contention that the honor of the image is transferred to the prototype. For a theology of religions the important question is therefore not so much the image itself, but the nature of the prototype. If the image is of Christ, then honor to the ikon of Christ is honor to Christ, and it is therefore not idolatry. If the image is of the Theotokos or of one of the saints, then honor to their ikons is not idolatry because they are not mistaken for God. The essence of idolatry is worshipping the creature instead of the creator. For St Justin Martyr, the pagans not only worshipped images, but regarded the prototype as God himself, whereas Justin himself thought that the prototypes were evil demons.

In the Christian view, God created all things, visible and invisible, and pronounced them good. But they didn’t stay good. Evil entered the good creation of God, and this fall from grace meant that the human race and creation itself was alienated from God. There is thus both a positive and negative view of human religion, at least among Orthodox Christians. Unlike Calvinists, Orthodox Christians do not believe in total depravity, that everything on earth is so tainted with evil that nothing of God can be seen in it. Human and religion and human worship, like everything else in the world, is fallen, and at best can only give a distorted vision of God. As Father Thomas Hopko notes

While affirming that God is indeed unknowable in His innermost being, and that there are indeed a multitude of manifestations of God and revelations in and toward His creatures, and that there are indeed an immense variety of forms and categories of expression and explanation proper to God in human thought and speech, the Orthodox tradition remains adamant in its insistence that not all of man’s thoughts and words about God are “adequate to divinity” (to use a traditional expression), and that indeed most of man’s ideas and words about God are plainly wrong, being, as they are, the inventions of the vain imagination of creaturely minds and not the fruit of a living experience of God in the actual reality of His self-disclosure.

Yet Justin’s view is not the only possible one. It is also possible that the “idols” of the pagans are false images of the true God, as St Paul seems to suggest (Ac 17:22-31) or of created spiritual beings, not necessarily evil (Col 1-2).

Father Michael Oleksa, the Orthodox missiologist, notes that it was St Maximus the Confessor’s opposition to the monothelitism of his times, and to the Platonic theology of Origen, that laid the foundations for the positive view which Orthodox missions have generally had of traditional societies in central and eastern Europe in the 9th & 10th centuries, and across central Asia and into eastern Siberia and Alaska over the next 800 years.

Orthodox evangelists felt no obligation to attack all the pre-contact religious beliefs of shamanistic tribes, for they could perceive in them some of the positive appreciation of the cosmos that is central to St Maximus’ theology. They could affirm that the spiritual realities these societies worshipped were indeed ‘logoi’ related to the Divine Logos, whose personal existence these societies had simply never imagined.

________
This is the last of a series of five articles on interreligious dialogue and theology of religions.

It has also (a year after it was first posted), been incorporated into a synchroblog on interreligious dialogue. To see links to the other articles in the series, and other articles in the synchroblog, please go to Notes from underground: Interreligious dialogue

Theology of religions

In this month’s synchroblog article Christianity: inclusive or exclusive? I wrote that many Christian “theologians of religion” seemed to be asking the wrong questions. The question most of them were asking was “Is there salvation in other religions?”, and, depending on the answers they gave, were classified as “inclusivist”, “exclusivist” or “pluralist”. The names of the categories might vary slightly, but not in any fundamental way.

If asking whether there is salvation in other religions does not lead to a theology of religions, what questions should theologians be asking?

Alan Race, in his book Christians and religious pluralism (London, SCM, 1983), quotes Wilfred Cantwell Smith as saying

From now on any serious intellectual statement of the Christian faith must include, if it is to serve its purposes among men, some doctrine of other religions. We explain the fact of the Milky Way by the doctrine of creation, but how do we explain the fact that the Bhagavad Gita is there?

Race quotes this at the beginning of his book, on page 2, yet one may read through to the end and find that he has still not even attempted to explain why the Bhagavad Gita is there. The same applied to Paul Knitter, and most of the other so-called theologians of religion.

Many Western theologians write as though religious pluralism is something new, or assert, as Race does, that “the present experience [of religious pluralism] transcends any earlier sense Christians may have had of its significance”, which he ascribes to the new mobility brought about by modern means of transport, the academic study of comparative religion and the new missionary consciousness found among many non-Christian religions. This perception may arise from the peculiar circumstances of most Western Christians between the ninth and the sixteenth centuries. In that period Western Europe was nominally Christian, and other religions were to be found only on the peripheries – tribal and nature religions in the north-east, and Islam in the south and east. Only in Spain and North-West Africa did Western Christians continue to live in an Islamic society, and in North Africa the Church had practically disappeared by the eleventh century. By the sixteenth century technological developments in shipbuilding and navigation had allowed Western Europeans to bypass the Islamic world, and once again establish contact with Eastern Asia, and to make contact with most of the American continents for the first time.

For Eastern Christians, however, the picture was very different.

The Church grew in a religiously plural society, and much of this religious pluralism persisted for some time after Christianity became the dominant religion of the Roman empire. In fourth-century Antioch, for example, there were more pagan temples than Christian churches, and the educational system was still basically the Greek paideia. The rise of Islam in the seventh century meant that many Orthodox Christians were living in a predominantly Muslim society, and continue to do so to this day. In Russia, Orthodox Christians were under Tatar rule for some centuries and even in the Byzantine Empire they “felt less threatened by Mongols and Turks than by the papacy, the Teutonic Knights and the monarchies of Central Europe” (Meyendorff 1989:47).

Western theologians like to talk about the “Constantinian era”, and “Christendom”, but for Orthodox Christians in the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem the “Constantinian era” lasted for less than 300 years and was gone by AD 640.

In the Western perception, therefore, a plurality of religions is a new phenomenon, which demands a new theological explanation, while for Orthodox Christians, especially those living among Western Christians, Western theology itself is the “new” (and sometimes more puzzling) phenomenon. Nevertheless the Christian Church came into being in a world in which there was a plurality of religions, and religious pluralism is not really a new thing.

What is new is not the fact of religious pluralism, but the concept of religious pluralism, and indeed the concept of religion itself. Harrison (1990:63-64) points out that “religion”, as we speak of it today, was a product of Western modernity, and the sources of Western modernity were the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it had been “no salvation outside the Church”, now it had become “No salvation without profession of the ‘true religion” – but which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for ‘fundamentals’, which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the ‘fundamentals’ were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of “the religions” is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims.

The inclusive, exclusive and pluralist models all derive from and are shaped by this conception of “religion” that itself arose from historical circumstances in early modern Europe, but these classifications neither explain, nor do they purport to explain, why the Bhagavad Gita is there. They are not so much theologies of religion as attempts to classify Christian attitudes to religious pluralism. Knitter, though he has much to say about the need for “authentic dialogue”, does not give much evidence of such dialogue in his book.

There were three different understandings of ‘nature’, which led to three different understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘the religions’. 1) the natural order as opposed to the supernatural. ‘Natural’ religion is the result of human sin and stands in opposition to ‘revealed’ religion. This dichotomy was largely shaped by the Protestant reformers. 2) an instinct, or the light of conscience (also Bacon, and Kant’s ‘practical reason’. This view is derived from Renaissance thought and ultimately from Stoic philosophy.`In this view the natural is not opposed to the supernatural but complements it. 3) the light of nature is that which springs from reason, sense, induction and argument (Bacon), which Kant later called ‘pure reason’. It was this view that developed as the Enlightenment progressed, and led to ‘religion’ being investigated in the same way as phenomena of the physical universe (Harrison 1990:5-6).

If modernity thus sidetracks the discussion of why the Bhagavad Gita is there (from a Christian point of view) perheps we can find some clues from a premodern source, the Bible.

Biblical data

The biblical view of other religions is a complex one. In Isaiah 46 there appears to be an absolute monotheism — the Lord is God and there is no other. In other passages the gods of the nations exist, but are subordinate to the Lord, the “great King above all gods” (Ps 94(95):3). The clearest statement of this is perhaps Deuteronomy 32:8-9:

When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God.
For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

This translation is based on the Septuagint reading, recently confirmed by some ancient Hebrew manuscripts. The Masoretic Hebrew text says “sons of Israel” instead of “sons of God”. I believe the “sons of God” reading (bene Elohim) is correct. This seems to imply that God gave each nation or people its own god, or its own religion. Israel was an exception, and had a hot line direct to YHWH himself, without having to go through a “middle man” – an angelic intermediary or go-between.

These gods of the nations were also national spirits, and were very often embodied in the human rulers of the nations, in the institution of divine kingship. They are the heavenly representatives of the earthly rulers, and stand before the throne of God. The “bene elohim” are the sons of God (Job 6), or in a Semitic metaphor, sons of gods, or simply gods.

Israel does not appear to have had one of these angelic rulers, because of its special relationship to YHWH. But after arriving in the promised land many Israelites were attracted by the political and religious arrangements of the people living there. they found all sorts of religions, and what goes with religions, kings, and they demanded a king for themselves (I Sam 8), thus rejecting YHWH’s direct rule over them. So later we find that Israel too has its god, its angelic intermediary, Michael (“who is like God?”).

The trouble is that the gods, and the political powers they represent, are corrupt and oppressive (Ps 81/2). The Psalmist prays for the restoration of God’s direct rule over all nations, and in an almost exact parallel of the last three verses of Psalm 81(82), Jesus asserted that he had come to do just that (Jn 12:31-32). The gods have allowed injustice and oppression in the nations they have been given to rule, and their rule will be taken away from them:

I say, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.”
Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations (Ps 81:6-8).

The picture here is not one of strict monotheism in the sense of denying that other divinities exist, but rather the assertion that the Lord is supreme over all the gods. The gods of the nations are the vice-gerents of YHWH, and are his servants. But what is interesting is that the last verses of the Psalm are almost exactly paralleled in John 12:31-32, when Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”

Jesus himself is the one who puts the rebellious gods in their place, and St Paul affirms this when he says: “And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:13-15).

There is indeed a theology of religions here, but its concerns are very different from those of most of the Western theologians who have written on the topic. The concern is not with questions of “religious pluralism” or “dialogue”, but rather with the place of the gods in the economy of the kingdom. In the New Testament we read about the spiritual powers that later theologians, like Pseudo-Dionysius, systematized into nine orders divided into three triads: cherubim, seraphim and thrones; dominions, powers and authorities; principalities, archangels and angels. These angelic powers are identified with the stars and planets (Job 38:7) and thus with the pagan gods of Greece and Rome and several other nations. C.S. Lewis used this idea in some of his fictional writings, namely the “cosmic trilogy” and The magician’s nephew.

In all this, there is no clear unambiguous statement of exactly what these spiritual powers are. Genesis 1 seems to adopt the strict monotheist approach: other nations may worship the sun and moon, but Genesis 1 does not even call them that, but just refers to the “big light” and the “little light”, making them material objects to provide illumination and regulate the calendar, and so demythologizing them. But the other passages I have quoted show that the demythologizing approach is not the only one.

There is also some ambivalence about whether these powers are good or evil. Romans 13 and Revelation 13 demonstrate that ambivalence in the Christian attitude to the state, but the “authorities” of the state are not mere flesh and blood. “Authority” (exousia) in the Bible is spiritual, and Christians find themselves in conflict with “authorities” and “world-powers” (Ephesians 6:10-12). We often speak of the “demonic” and “Satanic” as if they were utterly evil and godless, yet even Satan is among the “sons of God” (Job 1). This is expressed symbolically in Revelation, where it is said that the dragon swept down a third of the stars from heaven (Rev 12:4; 13:9). It may be doubted whether this represents an exact number, or whether it is possible to identify any particular spiritual power as “good” or “evil”. The proportion is probably intended to reassure Christians, as Elisha reassured his servant, that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Ki 6:16).

The gods of the nations, then, are seen as servants of the one true God. Sometimes they are rebellious servants, sometimes they are obedient servants, but they form part of the created world. The principalities and powers, or rulers and authorities, are part of the creation of God. In relation to human beings they are gods, and yet in relation to God himself they become as nothing – “I am the true God, there is no other.”

The “great king above all gods” is the creator of the bene elohim, the gods. This has been confused in modern thought by focusing on a division between the “natural” and the “supernatural”. Since the late Middle Ages in the West, and continuing into modernity, beings have been classified as natural or supernatural, with God, the gods, and all spiritual powers being included in the latter classification.

Orthodox Christianity, and premodern Christianity generally, draws the line in a different place, between creator and creature. The gods, the spiritual powers, are part of the created world, the world in which we live. The “principalities and powers” are not merely “spiritual” or “supernatural” forces, but are actually closely linked with the political powers and superpowers of this world, with the economic forces that some would subject us to (like the “market forces” of the free enterprisers).

This is why, in earlier posts Notes from underground: Of egregores and angels, I wondered whether the concept of egregors could be helpful in understanding their relations.

[continued in Part 3]

Bibliography

  • Harrison, Peter. 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Meyendorff, John. 1989. Byzantium and the rise of Russia. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
  • Race, Alan. 1983. Christians and religious pluralism. London: SCM.

Reality isn’t what it used to be

In considering the general topic of “Religion and science” the first question that occurs to me is “What religion? What science?”

Both “religion” and “science” are cultural constructs based on Western modernity. By “modernity” I mean the Western worldview (or “paradigm”) shaped by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Concerning religion, Peter Harrison says in his book “Religion” and the religions in the English enlightenment:

One of the effects of the Reformation was the exchange of an institutionally based understanding of exclusive salvation to a propositionally based understanding. Formerly it had been “no salvation outside the Church”, now it had become “No salvation without profession of the ‘true religion'” – but
which religion was the true religion? The proliferation of Protestant sects made the question exceedingly complex, and led to the production of innumerable abstracts, summaries and the like of the Christian religion, with confessions and statements of faith, in attempts to arrive at a solution. Thus there was a concern for ‘fundamentals’, which could therefore bring Christianity into a closer relation with other faiths, if the ‘fundamentals’ were broad enough to include them. Religions, in the new conception, were sets of beliefs rather
than integrated ways of life. The legacy of this view of “the religions” is the modern problem of conflicting truth claims (Harrison 1990:63-64).

The very term “interfaith” is thus a product of this conception, which is in turn a product of Western history — the idea of religions as “faiths”, that is sets of beliefs.

Harrison (1990:5-6) also points out that, in the West, there were three different understandings of ‘nature’, which led to three different understandings of ‘religion’ and ‘the religions’.

  1. The natural order is opposed to the supernatural. ‘Natural’ religion is the result of human sin and stands in opposition to ‘revealed’ religion. This dichotomy was largely shaped by the Protestant reformers.
  2. An instinct, or the light of conscience (also Bacon, and Kant’s ‘practical reason’). This view is derived from Renaissance thought and ultimately from Stoic philosophy. In this view the natural is not opposed to the supernatural but complements it.
  3. The light of nature is that which springs from reason, sense, induction and argument (Bacon), which Kant later called ‘pure reason’. It was this view that developed as the Enlightenment progressed, and led to ‘religion’ being investigated in the same way as phenomena of the physical universe.

There were such radical changes in religious orientation in post-Reformation England that there was in effect a diachronic religious pluralism, which led to secularization, and “the comparison of the various forms of Christianity with one another, and shaped to a significant extent the way in which the English were to see other ‘religions’. The whole comparative approach to religion was directly related to confessional disputes within Christianity”(Harrison 1990:3).

In other words, the frame of reference for the understanding of “religion” has been shaped by the history of Christianity in Western Europe since 1500. To this extent “religion” is a modern Western social and cultural construct.

For more on the differences between premodern and modern Western Christianity, see my post on The ikon in an age of neo-tribalism.

Like religion, “science” is also a social construct.

In English, more than in other languages, “science” has come to refer primarily to the “hard sciences”:, those that use empirical methods of verification, though even in English there is a wider meaning. In premodern times, for example, theology was called “the queen of the sciences”. In that sense, “sciences” meant “branches of knowledge”. And even today non-English speakers sometimes refer to people writing “scientific articles” and reading “scientific papers” on theology, whereas native English speakers would probably say the articles and papers were “academic” or “scholarly”, and reserve “scientific” for the “hard” sciences, like physics, chemistry, botany and zoology. Even social scientists would be thought of as reading academic papers rather than scientific ones.

I am particularly conscious of the language difficulty from the time that I worked in the editorial department at the University of South Africa, which was bilingual in Afrikaans and English. It was a distance-education university, and all study material was prepared in both languages. Some subjects, however, were uniquely bound up with Afrikaans culture, and with white Afrikaner nationalism. One such was Fundamental Pedagogics, which claimed to be the science of education. It was not, its proponents claimed, a philosophy of education, because there can be many different philosophies. It was scientific, and there can only be one science, and so from its lofty scientific pedestal it could sit in judgement on all mere philosophies of education.

In the original Afrikaans the word was “wetenskap” and “wetenskaplike”, which are usually translated as “science” and “scientific” respectively. It is the equivalent of the German Wissenschaft or the Russian nauka. Though “wetenskap” can also mean knowledge, Afrikaans also has another word, “kennis”, which corresponds more closely to the English term “knowledge”. To English-speaking people, however, or at least to English editors, Fundamental Pedagogics did not seems so much like a science as an ideology, and the fundamental pedagogicians, in their claims for their discipline, seemed to be including it among the natural sciences. One could never be sure whether this was a linguistic or cultural misunderstanding, or whether the fundamental pedagogicians were simply snake oil salesmen.

In English, more than in many other languages, “science” has come to be used primarily of the natural sciences. This in itself shows that the term “science” has a meaning that varies from culture to culture. Thomas Kuhn, with his concept of paradigm shifts, emphasised this even more.

Both “religion” and “science”, therefore, are cultural constructs, and need to be seen in the context of the culture in which they originated.

Can one say more?

Can one bring religion and science together, and see how religion sees science or how science sees religion?

Harrison (1990:2) says of this

It is evident from the philosophy of science that objects of study are shaped to a large degree by the techniques which are used to investigate them. If we apply this principle to the history of ‘religion’, it can be said that the very methods of the embryonic science of religion determined to a large extent what ‘religion’ was to be. It would be expected that ‘religion’ and the strategies for its elucidation would
develop in tandem. For this reason ‘religion’ was constructed essentially along rationalist lines, for it was created in the image of the prevailing rationalist methods of investigation: ‘religion’ was cut to fit the new and much-vaunted scientific method. In this manner, ‘religion’ entered the realm of the intelligible.

That brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning. Which religion? Which science?

One way in which I saw them brought together was a science fiction story. It introduced me to the concept of scientific paradigm shifts some years before Thomas Kuhn’s book on the subject was published. I’ve sometimes wondered if Kuhn read the story, and whether it perhaps gave him the germ of an idea. Or perhaps both his thesis and the story grew out of the same Zeitgeist.

The story was The new reality by Charles L. Harness, first published in 1950 (ie 12 years before Kuhn’s The structure of scientific revolutions).

The story concerns a group of scientist who are investigating a theory that paradigm shifts were not just changes in human consciousness, but that the world itself actually changed each time there was a paradigm shift. When the paradigm was that the sun revolved around the earth, the sun really had revolved around the earth, and when the paradigm changed, the earth began to orbit the sun.

To test this thesis, they want to break down the current paradigm, the Einsteinian one, which is based on the speed of light. They construct an apparatus (remember the Large Hadron Collider?) that will let through exactly one photon of light and direct it at a prism set at exactly 45 degrees. When a rat in a laboratory maze is faced with a fork in the path, so that it doesn’t know whether to go left or right, it hesitates. So the photon, on encountering the prism, would hesitate for a split second before deciding whether to reflect or refract. That would slow down the speed of light on which the Einsteinian paradigm is based.

The apparatus was constructed, and the machine was switched on. One of the male laboratory staff suddenly found himself naked in a garden. The laboratory and everything in it had vanished. A female colleague, likewise naked, approached him through the trees, offering him an apple.

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Bibliography

Anderson, Walter Truett. 1990. Reality isn’t what it used to be. San Francisco: Harper.
Harness, Charles L. 1998. An ornament to his profession. NESFA Press.
Harrison, Peter. 1990. “Religion” and the religions in the English Enlightenment. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Kuhn, Thomas. 1962. The structure of scientific revolutions.
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This post is part of an interfaith synchroblog on “Religion and science”.

Here are links to other synchronised blog posts on this general topic:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orthodox mission in the 21st century

This post is from the concluding chapter of my thesis on “Orthodox mission methods”, submitted in 1998. I have posted it mainly as a follow-up to the previous post and comments, especially the comments by Phil Johnson, on monasticism and utilitarianism

In the history of Orthodox mission, we have seen two kinds of approach to the world. There is one where the world is evaluated positively, and another where it is evaluated negatively. In the first view, the world is seen primarily as God’s world, part of his good creation. In the second view, it is seen primarily as the fallen world, the world that lies in the power of the evil one.

These two approaches extend to cover the ecumene, the humanly inhabited world. They are found in relation to culture, to church and state, to the relation of the Church to human society. If Christians are in the world but not of it, then some have emphasised the importance of being in the world, and others have emphasised the importance of not being of this world. I have pointed out that I believe that both these approaches are authentic parts of the Orthodox tradition, and that both are in fact essential to the maintenance of that tradition.

How does this affect Orthodox mission as we approach the twenty-first century? In the First World, the predominant culture is post-Christian. Modernity has affected Christian thinking, and postmodernism has affected some of those who have abandoned the Christian faith altogether. In the Second World, several decades of communist rule have effectively secularised society, leading to a modern post-Enlightenment outlook, though it has sometimes taken a different form to that of the First World. In the Third World, Christianity has been expanding tremendously in Africa, and has been shifting from a Roman Catholic to a Protestant emphasis in Latin America, while remaining a minority religion in most of Asia. There is a sense in which postmodern culture is spreading throughout the world, though taking different forms in different places.

How do Orthodox Christians evaluate these cultural changes in relation to mission? In the negative, or pessimistic view, often expressed by Fr Seraphim Rose, these cultural changes exemplify the spread of nihilism (Rose 1994:12). They are inimical to the gospel, and most Orthodox churches will lapse into apostasy as the world is prepared for the coming of the Antichrist. Mission, then, becomes the gathering of the faithful remnant out of the world, and out of those Orthodox churches that are seen as apostate. In its extreme form, this view is expressed in sectarianism and schism, over such questions as the calendar, or, in the Second World, over such questions as Sergianism – those who were said to be too subservient to the communist state. The emphasis is on maintaining the distinction between the Church and the world.

St Nicholas, Equal-to-the-Apostles and Enlightener of Japan

In the positive, more optimistic view, the world’s culture is not seen so negatively. The Orthodox Christian faith can be incarnated in any culture. The positive approach of St Nicholas of Japan or St Innocent of Alaska to the local cultures in the countries where they were missionaries can also be used with the cultures of modernity and postmodernity. In its extreme form, however, the effect of such accommodation can be to do away with the need for mission at all, such as when a prominent bishop was reported as saying that Mohammed was a prophet of God. Orthodox Christianity then becomes nothing more than a way of “being religious” for people of a certain ethnic or national cultural background.

One of the things that keeps these two tendencies from falling apart completely is that they both look to the same missionary saints: Nicholas of Japan, Herman of Alaska, and Innocent of Moscow as examples, even though there may be different emphases in their interpretations of their life and ministry.

It is probably too soon to try to define the characteristics of postmodernism or postmodernity. It is sufficient to note that in many areas of culture the influence of the Enlightenment, or modernity, has begun to wane, or at least to be modified by new approaches that are in some ways incompatible with modernity. The secular science of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on empirical verification, also gave rise to scepticism about what could not be verified empirically. In the postmodern world, however, such scepticism is often found side by side with credulity. It is said that G.K. Chesterton once remarked that when people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, but they will believe in anything (though this is frequently attributed to Chesterton, and is the kind of thing he might have said, I have not been able to find a source for it in his writings) . So we find, for example, that people who are sceptical about the resurrection, or even the existence of Jesus Christ, are sometimes quite willing to believe the most amazing stories about flying saucers and the like.

In some ways the postmodern world looks very similar to the world in which the Christian faith first appeared. There is, for example, a similar religious pluralism. The rapid growth of communications has made it possible for religions that were previously confined to one area to be found all over the globe. As a result of missionary activities and the diaspora of members of different religions, people living in places where, a couple of centuries ago, they would have had little chance of meeting members of more than one or two religions in the normal course of their daily lives, can now encounter dozens of different religious views and outlooks. Interreligious dialogue, which previously was regarded as the province of specialists, and involved meetings to which people travelled from all over the world at great expense, now also takes place electronically. Ordinary lay Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, neopagans, Mormons, Baha’i and many others from different parts of the world meet and discuss their religious beliefs and practices on electronic networks. There are also numerous new religious movements, and they too spread rapidly and widely. In the nineteenth century, St Nicholas of Japan took Orthodox Christianity from Russia to Japan. In the twentieth century, a new religious movement, the Aum Shinrikyo sect, has more adherents in Russia than in Japan where it originated.

Many of the new religious movements are extremely eclectic. The neopagan religions of the First World are usually conscious attempts to revive the pre-Christian religions of northern Europe, especially the Celtic and Teutonic ones. But in North America (and sometimes elsewhere) they are often combined with elements of North American native religion. Wicca, which, like some of the others, also claims to be a revival of a pre-Christian religion of Northern Europe, is in fact nothing of the kind. It has reinterpreted and combined elements from many different religions, ancient and modern, including Christianity, and some of the elements were made up by twentieth-century novelists. Many Wiccans are solitary, and consciously practise a kind of “mix and match” religion. There is also the New Age movement, which is even more eclectic. Many Christians characterise the neopagan religions as “New Age cults”, though most neopagans themselves do not see themselves as “New Age”, and make a distinction.
These movements, however, even where they do claim premodern roots, have a radically different attitude. They cannot be regarded simply as a revival of premodern religions; they are primarily a reaction against modernism. And they are therefore profoundly influenced by modernism. Tinker (1993:121) observes:

The withering of white Christian spirituality has so disillusioned people that many have engaged in a relatively intense search for something to fill the spiritual void, from Buddhism, Sufi mysticism, or Hindu meditation to Lynn Andrews hucksterism or the so-called “men’s council” movement, with channeling, astrology, and witchcraft falling somewhere in between. In this time of spiritual crisis, Indian [i.e. native American] spirituality, which just a short while ago was the anathema of heathenism, has now become an appealing alternative to many of the seekers.
The main difficulty is that Indian spiritual traditions are still rooted in cultural contexts that are quite foreign to white Euroamericans, yet Euroamerican cultural structures are the only devices Euroamericans have for any deep structure understanding of native spiritual traditions. Hence, those native traditions can only be understood by analogy with white experience…

Both well-meaning New Age liberals and hopeful Indian spiritual traditionalists can easily be swept up into a modern process of imposed cultural change, without recognizing deep structure cultural imposition even when in their midst. The first Indian casualty today in any such New Age spiritual-cultural encounter is most often the deep structure cultural value of community and group cohesion that is important to virtually every indigenous people. As adherents of Western cultures, Europeans and Euroamericans live habitual responses to the world that are culturally rooted in an individualist deep structure rather than communitarian. In this “meeting” of cultures, the communal cultural value of Indian people is transformed by those who do not even begin to see the cultural imposition that has occurred, however unintended. Hence dancing in a ceremony in order “that the people might live” gives way to the New Age Euroamerican quest for individual spiritual power. What other reason would a New Yorker have for rushing out to South Dakota to spend eight days participating in a Sun Dance ceremony? Yet well-meaning New Agers drive in from New York and Chicago, or fly in from Austria and Denmark, to participate in annual ceremonies originally intended to secure the well-being of the local, spatially-configured community. These visitors see little or nothing at all of the reservation community, pay little attention to the poverty and suffering of the people there, and finally leave having achieved only a personal, individual spiritual high. “That the people might live” survives merely as an abstract ideal at best.

According to Tinker then, modernity can be not merely imposed from without, by aggressive culturally-insensitive Western missionaries, but also from within, by religious sympathisers who are ostensibly seeking to learn. In Alaska and East Africa, however, the native people who had become Orthodox regarded Orthodoxy as part of their culture within a very short time, as I have shown in Chapter 7. I believe this might well be because the Orthodox missionaries were themselves rooted in a communitarian deep structure rather than an individualist one. In addition, as I have tried to show in chapter 2, Orthodox soteriology has tended to regard human nature and human institutions in a somewhat more positive light than much Western theology; as distorted and blemished by human sinfulness rather than “totally depraved”.

The modern revival of the ancient European cults of Odin, Thor and Lugh among people living in the First World involves the same kind of reinterpretation of premodern beliefs as that described by Tinker, but at least it does no harm to living community practitioners of those cults. In part the phenomenon that Tinker describes is the difference between tribal and urban cultures. It is also the difference between what McLuhan (1967:84) describes as literate and preliterate, or manuscript and print, cultures. The cohesive kinship community structure of the tribal polity makes way for the anonymous individualism of the urban one – a process that began in the modern age in north-western Europe with scholasticism and the Renaissance (McLuhan 1967:100).

One reason for the rapid growth of African Independent Churches could be their successful retribalisation of the Enlightenment-style Christianity preached by most Western Protestant missionaries. In effect, they have reinterpreted the Christianity of modernity in premodern terms, and have rejected the “cult of civilisation” in which it was packaged. And it is precisely among such groups that Orthodox Christianity is growing in Africa today.

Postmodernism is primarily a First-World phenomenon, though because of the ease of communication, it is influencing other parts of the world as well. Within the First World, many Christians who have been brought up in “Enlightenment” denominations are discovering Orthodox Christianity, and Orthodox apologists are seeking to help these “Enlightenment” Christians to understand Orthodoxy. The religious pluralism of our time has brought these Christians into closer contact with each other. Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe and the Near East have migrated to America, those from Cyprus have gone as migrant workers to Western Europe, and stayed. Refugees from the Bolshevik Russia have settled in other parts of the world. In the past, the differences between them and Western Christians were explained ethnically. It was the difference between the Greek and German, the Cypriot and British, the Arab and American, the Russian and English, way of seeing things. The new Orthodox apologetic literature takes a different approach, comparing the paradigms or worldviews, rather than national characteristics.

One example of such literature is Bajis (1989) Common ground: an introduction to Eastern Christianity for the American Christian. The book begins with a section called “Western and Eastern outlooks compared”, which starts at the levels of paradigms or worldviews or frames of reference. Bajis (1989:6-8) notes that:

  1. Eastern Christianity is communal
  2. Eastern Christianity is intuitive
  3. Eastern Christianity is holistic
  4. Eastern Christianity sees the Church as a living organism of which Christ himself is a member
  5. Eastern Christianity sees the Christian faith as relational, personal and experiential
  6. Eastern Christianity sees the grasp of truth as dependant [sic] upon one’s moral and spiritual sensitivity.

In many ways, these are characteristics of premodern thinking as opposed to modern thinking. Bajis seems to be inviting his readers to suspend their modern worldview, and try to see things through premodern eyes. As I have tried to show in earlier chapters, Eastern and Western Christianity have been influenced by modernity in different ways, and this accounts for most of the differences listed above. Daneel and others have observed similar differences between African Independent Churches and the Western missions in Africa. In parts of rural Greece, as described by Stewart (1991), Hart (1991) and others, the same could be said.

Modernity tends to be analytic rather than synthetic. It seeks to understand things by breaking them down rather than by building them up. It relegates “religion” to the “private” sphere. It is individualist rather than communal. Modernity is not holistic: its analytical approach seeks to reduce wholes to their components, to disassemble and dissect, and to see the whole as purely the sum of its parts. The holistic view of Orthodoxy (and many premodern societies) is quite alien to this approach.

In the modern world – that is, the world of modernity – Orthodoxy finds itself misunderstood. Modernity has faced ideological battles between individualism and collectivism, which to the Orthodox appear to be two sides of the same modernist coin. But to collectivists, such as the Bolsheviks, Orthodoxy, with the value it gives to the human person, seems to be yet another manifestation of bourgeois individualism. To individualists, Orthodox communalism seems to be another manifestation of totalitarian collectivism, and many Western observers of Russia have seen a continuity between the Orthodox vision of “Holy Russia” and the political messianism of the Bolshevik regime, while to the Orthodox the Bolshevik regime was the logical conclusion of the ideas of the Western Enlightenment, imported and imposed by Peter the Great. In this way Western professional “Russia-watchers” still give a picture of the Russian Orthodox Church in which many Orthodox Christians find it difficult to recognise themselves.

Orthodox communalism, expressed in such terms as kinonia and sobornost, is hard to express in English. “Fellowship” has become trite, “conciliarity” is too abstract, “community” is too vague. But at its root, it means something similar to the Zulu saying, “umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu” – a person is a person because of people; or as the English poet John Donne put it, “No man is an island”.

In the light of this, one might expect Orthodox mission to be more effective in premodern societies, and as I have tried to show in the preceding chapters, this does appear to be the case. In Alaska and East Africa, for example, Orthodoxy could become part of the culture of people. Even where it changed and influenced the culture of the people, it did so in an organic and internal way, so that baptism replaced initiation ceremonies such as female circumcision, even where Orthodoxy had been accepted in a protest movement against a missionary ban on female circumcision. In the diaspora among people from Eastern Europe or the Near East who emigrated to North America, Australia, and other places, Orthodox mission has been less effective, however.

In itself, however, the greater effectiveness of Orthodox mission among premodern people, particularly in hunting, gathering and pastoral societies, is not necessarily unique. Western mission has also tended to be more successful among such peoples in Africa and South America, while spreading more slowly among people who follow the “great religions” such as Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. But Orthodoxy does seem to have been more easily “contextualised” in premodern cultures, and to become part of the culture of such people.

In the diaspora, Orthodox people, many of them coming from villages in the Balkans and the Near East with a premodern worldview, have emigrated to cultures where modernity is part of the culture. The cultural milieu has tended to be assimilative and hostile to tradition. Orthodox immigrants have often sought to identify with the host culture, and Orthodoxy has tended to become a relic of the past, or a mark of ethnic identity or nostalgia for one’s ethnic roots. In such societies, Orthodoxy found it difficult to “contextualise” the Christian faith – unlike Western Christianity, and Protestant Christianity in particular, which both helped to produce modernity, and was in turn a product of it.

Postmodernity has been bringing a change in this. It is less hostile to tradition, and has often led people to search for “traditional wisdom” outside modernity. The danger, as Tinker has pointed out above, is that the eclectic postmodern approach, while valuing tradition more than modernism does, can also destroy the traditions it seeks to adopt, by appropriating the superficial forms, but not the worldview they are based on. Thus it can sometimes come as a surprise to Orthodox Christians in the diaspora to find that attitudes in the surrounding society towards them are beginning to change. They may find that some people, at least, no longer regard them as irrelevant relics of the past, but as somehow “cool” and “countercultural”.

The West, after centuries of using terms such as “navel gazing” as a term of abuse, symbolic of all that is backward and out-of-date about the Orthodox Church, as suddenly begin to show an interest in such things. An age that has begun to look to gurus – Hindu holy men from India – for advice, is more open to the message of monastic spiritual elders from places like Mount Athos, whose long hair and beards have now become a symbol of ancient spiritual wisdom.

In Russia, one of the characteristics of the religious revival of the late Soviet era, particularly among the intelligentsia, was that it was driven by a search for the roots of Russian culture. Marxist materialism was somehow unsatisfying, and people began a spiritual search in traditional Russian culture. Though this was in many cases a religious search, it was not necessarily a Christian one. Russian culture, however, was profoundly shaped by the Orthodox Christian faith, and thus led many of these searchers to Orthodox Christianity.

One of the mission strategies being followed in the current religious revival in Russia, therefore, is the promotion and teaching of Russian Orthodox culture. As time passes, however, I believe that such an approach will prove to be inadequate. In the Soviet era, pre-Soviet Russian culture was sanitised and Bowdlerised to fit the Marxist ideology. Those who discovered the Christian faith by exploring Russian culture did so as a deliberate choice, which was an act of rebellion or non-conformism according to the values of the dominant culture.

The collapse of the Soviet system, however, has opened the floodgates to a much wider range of cultural choices. There are many more choices, and young people who have grown up without knowing anything of the restriction of life under the Soviet system might be less inclined to seek answers in the Russian culture of the past. Those who are most involved in the religious revival, in the 25-40 age group, never had the opportunities to encounter the variety of culture that the younger generation is now able to experience, and might therefore not be able to interpret the newer imported cultures as easily in Orthodox terms.

The generation of the under-25s, however, who have grown up without really knowing the communist system, might be more difficult to reach by such a method, or might, if they do adopt it, lapse into nationalism and xenophobia, covered with a very thin veneer of Orthodoxy. The collapse of communism has not yet led to its replacement by anything else. The glowing picture of the virtues of capitalism and the free-market system painted by Western propaganda has created a lot of unfulfilled expectations. What it has done, and what Western Christian missionaries to Russia have sometimes unconsciously reinforced, has been to implant Western values of individualism and greed, which find little outlet in Russia, except in a life of crime.

The tensions in Russian society are also to be found in the Russian Orthodox Church. There are groups within the Church that have adopted a xenophobic and nationalist attitude, and have rejected even Orthodox Christians from outside Russia. The leaders of the Church are under constant pressure from such groups to suppress foreign influences, to discipline clergy who are seen as “modernist” and so on.

As the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest Orthodox Church in the world, this is bound to affect Orthodox mission, not only in Russia, but elsewhere as well. It could easily cause a kind of paralysis, and a concentration on external and political considerations. Questions such as participation in the ecumenical movement, for example, could be decided on the grounds of political expediency, on whether it would promote or block the influence of this or that power bloc or pressure group. Such an attitude will not promote Orthodox mission.

If Orthodox mission is to be effective in future, then I believe tradition and traditionalism are very important. The Orthodox Church needs to avoid the error made by so many Western Christians in self-consciously seeking to make the church “relevant to modern man” by the wholesale adoption of modern culture, values and attitudes. It also needs to avoid the pseudotraditionalism of making certain selected traditions badges of identity, and therefore marks of self-righteousness. The self-righteous denunciations of others by many of the Old Calendrists, for example, have little to do with the genuine Orthodox tradition that promotes the virtues of modesty, humility, patience and love. Using traditions as badges of identity to denounce others is quite incompatible with this.

What is most urgently needed for mission is the renewal of the genuine tradition of Orthodox monasticism that promotes these virtues. In many places, this is happening. Monasteries, like mission, have been growing since the 1960s. If this genuine spiritual life in Orthodoxy grows, then mission will be the automatic consequence. If Orthodox leaders who participate in the ecumenical movement are filled with these virtues, then they will not be corrupted by their participation in it, as the xenophobes and nationalists fear, nor, should they withdraw from the ecumenical movement, would it be from considerations of political expediency.

The revival of interest in tradition that has come with postmodernity provides a mission opportunity for Orthodox Christians not only in the First World, but also in the Second and Third Worlds as well. The religious eclecticism of the New Age is not confined to the First World. It is universal. One of the students at the Orthodox theological seminary in Nairobi was from a country town in Cameroun. He had been baptised a Roman Catholic, and at the age of 16 had become a Rosicrucian, and had tried Ekankar, Wicca and several other Western religious movements before becoming a Hindu and travelling to India to spend some years studying under a guru. On his return to Cameroun he had a vision in which his spirit guides told him to worship the Triune God, and he travelled to Yaounde, the capital, to look for a trinitarian church. The first one he found was the Orthodox Cathedral, so he became an Orthodox Christian.

But postmodernity, as a reaction against modernity, can also impose the values of modernity. Traditions can become diluted by eclecticism, and the salt can lose its savour. The Orthodox vision and vocation is not to be overwhelmed by the world, but it is a vision of a world renewed and restored by the life of Christ. The traditions need to be strengthened so that they are not diluted and overwhelmed by eclecticism. This means that monasticism needs to be restored, as is happening in parts of Greece, Russia, Serbia and other places. It also needs to be returned to Africa, where it started.

The obstacles to this are great. Where, in the Orthodox disapora, Orthodox Christians have sought to accommodate to modernity, monasticism has not flourished. Some have tended to be embarrassed by it, and have at best regarded it as a quaint survival, or not quite in accordance with the image of a “modern” church. In the Second World, monasteries have to overcome the deliberate attempts to destroy them made by communist regimes. To extend the metaphor used by Sister Philotheia of the Monastery of St John the Forerunner in Karea, Athens, the wells are few, and so many are having to make do with bottled water. And sometimes the bottled water could come from contaminated wells.

As we look forward to the 21st century then, the Orthodox Church in its mission is faced by both opportunities and dangers. For the first time since the 6th century, more Orthodox Christians in more countries are free to engage in mission, unhindered by hostile and repressive governments. The Orthodox Church’s unique experience of modernity, and its stronger base in premodern culture, gives it more opportunities than Western Christians to make its message heard, both among those who are becoming somewhat disillusioned with modernity, and among those who have been, rather reluctantly, dragged into it.

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