Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the tag “Enlightenment”

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.

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.

War and the Enlightenment

In Notes from a commonplace book: war and the Enlightenment there is an interesting comment on how the Enlightenment changed Western attitudes to war.

I’ve not really looked into that before, but have been interested in how the Enlightenment changed European attitudes to witchcraft, and made it difficult for Europeans to understand African attitudes to witchcraft, because it disturbingly reminded them of their premodern past (see Christian responses to witchcraft and sorcery).

This piece, however, sparks off a new train of thought. Even today white apologists for Western colonialism use the argument that European rule in Africa brought about peace and ended the endless wars that devastated the continent. But if we look at the precolonial wars in Africa, they were generally much milder than the wars brought about after colonialism, which are often driven by neocolonialism (eg the history of Congo for the last 50 years). This modern warfare was far more devastating than the precolonial kind, with the possible exception of the Mfecane.

I’m not sure whether this is simply another postmodern reaction to the worldview and values of modernity, but I think it needs further study.

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