The peculiar approach of Orthodoxy to the peoples of the nations is often a point of criticism. The so-called “national Churches” are seen as hotbeds of cultural intransigence and sources of division. The modern difficulties between Constantinople and Moscow echo the ancient rivalry of Constantinople and Alexandria (a primary source for the schism with the “Oriental” Orthodox). These national Churches, with their deep-seated natural loyalties of language and custom appear to be inherent obstacles to unity and commonality. When these natural affinities are carried over into the New World the result is hyphenated Orthodoxy (Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian, Ukrainian, etc.). Outsiders tend to view this as a hopeless ecclesiology, destined to hamper all Orthodox efforts towards a common voice and little more than the seedbed of future schism.
But the historic Orthodox approach to nations, languages and culture is rooted in its theology. It goes to the heart of what it means to be human, and it is an understanding of the human that is currently under deep assault. That challenge is frequently described by the single word: globalism. Together with ecumenism (as the Orthodox use the word) it is easily the greatest danger to the ancient Christian faith in the modern world. Why this is so is not immediately obvious.
How do people relate to one another? How do they belong? What manner of relationship is most proper to human beings?
The first and most immediate answer to these questions is found within the family. Ties of kinship are easily the strongest and the most natural both within the human family and the animal family as well. We have an instinctive love for our own. Human beings care about people in general, but about their own in particular above all else. Motives for generosity and kindness, justice and equanimity are most easily identified when the subject is family.
This same instinct can be expanded locally. We care about “kith and kin,” neighbors and family. Those with whom we share the most common interests are our most likely allies and most likely to understand and sympathize with our needs.
The obvious character of such natural associations requires little elaboration. But as our circle of association grows, such natural associations become rather tenuous. There were strong admonitions concerning the care for strangers in the Old Testament. Strangers fall outside our natural boundaries and require special attention.
This special attention is, at heart, the problem of globalism.
The life of the modern state is, to a great extent, built on the work of Thomas Hobbes (English, 17th century) who described the nature of the “social contract.” Human communities, he reasoned, work best when the rights of the individual are respected and there is an agreed upon social contract that governs our interactions.
Like all rational systems, Hobbes’ thought is accurate and useful when applied in a certain manner within congenial circumstances. However, the less “natural” human relations become (the less familial and local) the more abstract contract comes to the fore.
I never had a “contract” with my parents or my siblings. We fought, disagreed, negotiated and solved a host of problems. Sometimes relationships were quite strained. Nevertheless they were always resolved amicably as kinship and kindness prevailed.
My father would have gladly loaned me money (had I needed it and he had it) without giving a thought to signing papers. He would likely have been offended had such a thing been suggested. But I would not expect the same from the strangers at the bank.
In a society of strangers, however, papers become essential. Indeed, in a society of strangers, the drive to greater and greater regulation and legal description of all manner of relationships is almost irresistible.
In time, the relationships themselves can be submerged to the larger interests of the regulations and the regulators themselves. Society becomes a mass of laws and the unique aspects of human existence suppressed as legal conformity takes center stage.
The drive of the modern world is towards productivity and consumption. That individual rights are also championed is perhaps an upside, but the effect of mass culture is homogenization. The more we consume, the more alike we become. Modern production is capable of tremendous variety, but the streets of Bangkok, Beijing, and Berlin all present the display of America’s ubiquitous blue jeans. We could be different, but we’re not.
Of course, the globalization of blue jeans is of little consequence. But it is symptomatic of a deeper homogenization. For we are not merely exporting fashion, we are exporting people. In a global economy, workers are expected to follow the work. The European Union moves ever forward towards a homogenous Europe. “Multiculturalism” and other popular monikers make such mobility and destruction of local cultures seem not only fashionable, but desirable.
But is it good for the human project?
The modern project, and its latest iteration, globalism, has come to largely define human beings in economic terms. Freedom, understood as the ability of the individual to choose and shape their own lives and destiny, is enlisted as an ally of maximum productivity and profit. If it is more productive to place a factory in Belgium, but to hire workers from Romania, then, uprooting communities (or just individuals) that have been stable for centuries, and moving them across a continent for work is not seen as destructive – rather it is hailed as opportunity. If a factory in a city is no longer as productive as it once was, closing it and moving it somewhere else (with tax incentives and lower wage costs) is considered normative. The destruction of a city with stable neighborhoods, families and schools is simply the price of doing business.
The result has been a growing shift of populations driven by economic concerns. Such shifts have happened throughout history, but often over multiple generations and in a more stable format. The modern speed of technology has quickened the pace of such change and overwhelmed the natural limits of human adaptation. We are left with very few “natural” bonds. We have kinsmen, but they often live at great remove. We live in communities with common economic concerns, but disparate religious and cultural background. Blue jeans and contemporary rock music make for a very thin cultural bond.
It is against this growing modern backdrop that Orthodoxy seeks to maintain the integrity of historical peoples and places. Orthodoxy is often Serbian, Russian, Romanian or Greek, etc., because people are naturally Serbian, Russian, Romanians or Greeks. There are peoples that most have never heard of outside of Eastern Europe (Ruthenians, Lemko, Gallicians, etc.) whose entire cultural identity would disappear were its religious customs homogenized. The preservation of the native peoples in Alaska (Aleut, Yupik, Tlingit, Inupiat) has been a careful work of Orthodoxy for the past two centuries. Today, there are many thousands of Mayan peoples in Guatemala who have been received into Orthodoxy, with a particular eye towards the preservation of their identity. This same pattern is true across the world. The Orthodox of Tanzania are distinctly African, and will remain so.
But respecting such natural affinities and cultures – particularly if they are given true worth and dignity, requires genuine deference and respect. The push towards various homogenizations of the Church (including the most sensible) can easily be driven by the same ideology that drives the general culture. We want an easily accessible Orthodoxy without cultural barriers and the inconvenience of kinship. The “strangers” from the mainstream modern cultures fail to see how foreign to the human project their own lack of kinship and local ties truly are.
The modern project will eventually fail. Ideologies that lack a grounding in nature will eventually crash under their own weight and the strange consequences of their ideas. The massive productivity that we presently enjoy will come to an end at some point. The unnatural dislocations that we currently experience will cease. If we survive that collapse, the world that slowly rebuilds will likely have more natural affinities and practices. It is essential that the Church remember what it is to be human – for when we repent ourselves and seek to return – who else will know what it looks like?
In the meantime, we continue the work of God’s human project – restoring people to sanity and the holy Church of God.