History, Post-Modernism, and Orthodoxy

A first glance – history would seem to be straightforward. As one wag put it, “It’s just one darned thing after another.” But history is, oddly, a rather modern thing. Histories have been written for a very long time. Pharaohs described their exploits and had them carved on stone steles. Herodotus recorded the Persian Wars. Plutarch described the lives of the Roman Emperors. Caesar gave an account of the Gallic Wars. The court history of Israel is recorded in the Old Testament. The list could be greatly enlarged. So what is so modern about history?

It is interesting that the word “historical,” first appears in English in 1661 (as best can be determined). Something was happening in the 15th and 16th century that moves history to a place beyond mere memoirs. The cultural revolution that is known as the Protestant Reformation was an upheaval without parallel in the events of Western civilization. The place of the Church, the nature of authority, the relations of individuals to Church and state, the very fundamentals of religion, were all shifting and changing. Where they were not shifting (in areas that remained Roman Catholic), they were nevertheless undergoing change as Counter-reformation and reassertion of the Catholic faith were being tested to their limit.

A primary tool in this “culture war,” was history and the re-telling of history. The Reformers put forward an account of the history of the Catholic Church that included the story of its corruption (morally and doctrinally). The Counter-Reformation described the Reformation within the confines of history’s heresies. Unlike the previous heresies, however, the Reformation did not recede – it survived. Along with it, there survived a new reading of Western history.

That new reading was the birth of critical reading, the hallmark of the modern world. Though many conservative Christians today balk at Biblical studies that use the “historical-critical method,” nothing could actually be more Protestant. The re-writing of history is as old as “history” itself. The ancient Roman poet, Virgil, created a myth of the creation of Rome (the epic poem The Aeneid) to link its story to that of ancient Greece. However, in the divisions of the modern world (more or less contemporary with the Reformation), the re-writing of history was not sufficient. The critical re-writing of one’s opponent’s history became necessary as well. History moved from story-telling to pseudo-science. History became more than the way the tell ourselves our own story: it became a means of ascertaining “facts,” and grounding various truth claims.

The rise of post-modern historical work has come about with an additional twist to the story. The critical work of the historian turned from looking at the “facts” of history, to looking critically at the historian himself. The result has been the assertion that there are no “objective” histories – just different ways of telling stories. For some this assertion challenges the very idea of “truth.” If all versions of history are simply different ways of telling stories – is there no way to know the truth?

This is one of many crises in our “post-modern” period. We live in increasingly multi-cultural societies with many competing versions of history (and thus of “truth”). Our present experience is that whoever’s history shouts the loudest and longest wins.

It is in this fragmented world that Orthodoxy finds itself today. The story of Orthodoxy, its history and view of the world do not fit within the stories of either Catholic or Protestant. History books and classes in the Western world (America and Western Europe) often make little mention of Eastern Europe or of Byzantium. I was taught that the Renaissance was an invention of the West (with no mention of the exiles from Byzantium who brought their learning to Italy). That the Roman Empire (in the East) did not fall until 1453 is not part of Western consciousness. Rome fell in 476 a.d. and was followed by the Dark Ages. Then came the Middle Ages with knights and kings. People rediscovered art and science and it is called the Renaissance. Protestant and Catholics divided and we discovered science. We’ve been making progress ever since. If you are an educated person in America – that would be a very thorough knowledge of history. Most adult Americans whom I know (and I mostly know educated people) could not recite even that highly Westernized version of history.

Today’s Orthodox (in the West) find themselves in a world whose dominant stories do not include Orthodoxy. Where do the Orthodox fit? What do converts to Orthodoxy do with their own self-understandings?

It is here that Orthodoxy and Post-modernism have commonality. Fitting within the “modern” world, Orthodox find it necessary to critique and modify the dominant stories of their culture (and often of their own past). There is a website (very well done) called, “Byzantine Texas.” The odd positioning of those two words speaks volumes. Where does Byzantium fit? Of course, no 21st century Orthodox believer is particularly “Byzantine,” but such a person will have a consciousness about the Byzantine world that no one else around them shares. Thus, we should forgive the enthusiast for writing nostalgically on facebook about the “return” of Constantinople and weeping over Hagia Sophia.

In many ways nostalgia is an easy substitute for the spiritual work required in the present. We do not live in Byzantium (though we owe far more to it than most know). We live at the end of the Modern West and at the beginning of something else (your guess is as good as mine). Fr. Georges Florovsky, perhaps better than any other in our time, spoke of the spiritual task of the Orthodox in this part of the Modern Age.

Florovsky was an exile from Bolshevik Russia (as opposed to later Soviet Russia). He witnessed the end of the West in his own world, and the early construction of a devilish Post-Modern world. History was re-written at a pace unknown to any people before. Today’s allegiance could be tomorrow’s sentence to the Gulag. From that fragmented world he was thrust – not to lands of freedom and homes of the brave. He traveled to Eastern Europe, Western Europe and finally to America. The seeds that produced the madness of Bolshevism had actually been transplanted from Europe, though only beginning to germinate. The Churches of Europe were weakening daily and their place in the culture eroding. Florovsky spoke of the “religious tragedy” of the West – born of its own internal contradictions (primarily those begotten of the divorce between rational theology and religious experience).

Florovsky’s magisterial Ways of Russian Thought, ends with a call for Orthodoxy to bear witness to the “religious tragedy” of the Christian West. He speaks of an exegesis of Western Christian history, but says:

This tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox theologian must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.

This is not the same as the present Post-modernism found in popular culture and academia. This is not an effort to deconstruct and demolish. It is an effort to understand, diagnose and heal. Knowing Florovsky’s personal history, I think he imagined this task to be something that might occur in a more formal level. He was, after all, deeply involved in dialogs with Western Churches and theology. But I think such a moment has passed – if only because of the passing of Christian institutions. The institutions that remain are largely estranged from their own people. The Western Christian is often a “Churchless” Christian.

The task enjoined by Florovsky is something that is gradually being taken up by converts and immigrants in their Orthodox life within the West. I am a Western man and a modern man, as much as any man can be in a culture that is itself becoming post-modern. The religious tragedy of the West lives within me. Belief and unbelief live side-by-side within a soul that is somedays Russian peasant and other days German Rationalist – and almost always drawn by Scots common sense. I can no longer tell the story of my faith without reference to Byzantium. I hum her tunes unconsciously.

Sometimes the tragedy, reendured and relived, becomes comic. Arguing about the Council of Florence as though it happened yesterday, as though the insults of Pope and bishops heaped upon the weakened Emperor of New Rome and his court still stung. But the questions of Florence (to use only one of many historical examples) must indeed be relived and reendured. We cannot live as though they were not asked. To do so is to simply Balkanize the truth and enact our own tragic version of the Last Days of Byzantium.

I use the verb “Balkanized” in a very conscious manner. For the tragedy of the Balkans – born in the failure of the West to honestly assess the rightful needs and claims of Orthodox Christians coming out from under the “Turkish Yoke,” and creating a fatally flawed political reality for the colonial and commercial interests of the West, is as much a failure of Western religious consciousness as of political blindness. The same mistakes created many of the tragically unstable regimes and political boundaries of the Middle East – and in the same period. The First World War (which is arguably the close of the “modern age”) has never ended.

Orthodox Christians in the West, both convert and transplant, represent ambassadors from the Christian past (and a forgotten present). I do not think the healing of the tragedy comes as a combination (as in “two lungs”). The Orthodox East and Christian West cannot be combined. I think it is rather as Florovsky said: the tragedy must be reendured and relived. The peace can only be found within the one who does so.

There is no formula for how this works or what it looks like. In a very small way, it is what I think takes place on this blog (or so I intend). I write from within my own experience of the tragedy. I have been through various permutations of modern religious experience. Born a Baptist, convert to Anglicanism, 3 years among the Charismatics (two of which were in a commune), educated by liberal Anglicans, serving as Episcopal priest among high, low, evangelicals, liberals and charismatics, studying Orthodox theology in a post-modernist institution, convert to Orthodoxy and re-ordained. I’ve never been a Calvinist or handled snakes. Otherwise, the tragedy is mine.

Like many similar men and women, I breathe Florovsky’s religious tragedy. I converse with it every day in my ministry and revisit it in my dreams at night. I write about it and listen to others. We argue and berate, listen and repent. And somehow, I know more and am yet more reconciled to all of it than I have ever been. And I know that I am not alone.

The difference between Orthodoxy and post-modernism is that the former exists to live and to heal. It does not hate its own father and mother and need not hate its estranged brother and sister. But neither can it be something that it isn’t. It is not a new denomination imported from the East. It is not an alternative. Orthodoxy is the elephant in the living room of the Christian West. And it has come to stay.