And All Our Yesterdays

procession-de-la-muerteSome things in the world happen very slowly – and they are less perceptible because of it. Continental drift is real, but is only noticed when viewed over millions of years. Though we live our lives in mere decades, our own existence is frequently caught up in larger, slower forces. We act out the drama within a play that often began centuries earlier. My life can easily be but the 15th Act of the play while my ego imagines that I am at the beginning, and even that I myself am the playwright.

The drama of our world is older than the drama of the continents – but that is a story told only by God. Nevertheless, smaller pieces of the play can be extracted and examined with great benefit. Self-understanding and discernment sometimes require this process. Many of our thoughts are not our own, or not of our own making. We speak the lines of greater forces, often unwittingly. When I become the spokesman of the Zeitgeist then I am in danger of a kind of historical possession, my authenticity hijacked by the Spirit of the Age.

The drama of the modern world has been playing itself out for several centuries now. The empires and kingdoms of the Middle Ages, with roots in religion and Rome have gradually felt their way forward with the rise of the nation state, colonialism, nationalisms, and today’s latest iteration – globalization. Each act within its unfolding has had its own worldview and language. Every variation has required new virtues of its players and written new speeches for its actors.

The play has been marked by deeply violent upheavals. And every variation that has unfolded has done so in the name of a new stability and even “the end of all war.”

As the Holy Roman Empire evolved into today’s Europe, it has done so with some of the bloodiest wars in human history.  The present forging of the European Union has not been without violence (cf. the Balkans) nor has it been marked by an easy prosperity or a happy European melting-pot.

Modern Euro-forces, like their Holy Roman, Nation State, Colonialist and Nationalist predecessors, claim for their emergence an inner necessity. The European Union is an inevitable, evolutionary movement towards a greater future.

Christianity and the Church once played a dominant role in the European identity. The Church put the “Holy” in the Holy Roman. The movement away from that empire, however, has placed increasing distance between Europe and the Church, the individual European and God. It is interesting to hear a modern Orthodox critique of the Euro Project:

European culture is based on man. Man is its program and its goal, its means and its content. Humanism is its chief architect. It is totally constructed on the sophist principle and criterion that man— European man— is the measure of all things, visible and invisible. He is the supreme creator and giver of values. The truth is whatever he proclaims as true; the purpose of life is whatever he proclaims it to be; good and evil are what he pronounces to be good and evil. To put it briefly and bluntly: he makes himself God. Have you not noticed how immensely he loves to play God, in science and technology, philosophy and culture, religion and politics, art and fashion— to play God at any price, even by inquisition and papism, by sword and fire, by savagery and cannibalism? In the language of his humanistic-positivistic science, he has pronounced that there is no God. Guided by that logic, he confidently concludes that, as there is no God, he is God. (Man and the God-Man, St. Justin Popovich, 2011)

The Church, whether Roman Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, has done a delicate dance over the past several centuries – sometimes accommodating, sometimes challenging the evolving Euro-Elephant. The dance has not been confined to Europe. For though Europe is but a small part of the modern world, and not even its largest economy, its own evolution has carried the world with it. The United States, despite early resistance, eventually became involved in Europe’s wars (dubbed “World Wars” – everybody gets to play!). The Colonialist phase was perhaps the most blatant effort to shape the world into a larger version of Europe. The lines of demarcation that today represent nation states across the world were drawn by Europeans for the most part, often with no attention to natural divisions of geography, language and tribe or religion, with occasionally devastating consequences (fueling many of today’s civil wars and conflicts).

To a large extent, the word “modern” or “post-modern” simply means “European” (including when it is applied to America). And it is that modern evolution that today creates the landscape in which the Church must live. That landscape gives new meaning to words, and creates new “virtues” suitable to its cultural/political projects.

One of those virtues today is described as “tolerance.” There is, of course, a Christian meaning of the term. But in the modern context, the word describes the virtue of holding certain things as “private” and refusing to criticize or judge any number of things that might seem or feel “objectionable.” Among the “privately held” things are religious beliefs.

To describe a modern nation today as a “Christian” nation would be an affront to tolerance. In the Euro world other older associations, such as “French,” or “German,” might also bring approbation, unless defined in strictly linguistic terms. Various local examples of resistance to the new virtues are quickly labeled as “nationalistic” with overtones of Nazism, whether deserved or not.

Even “love” can have its own meaning within the modern context. St. John Paul II spoke very clearly and persistently about the modern “culture of death,” which was never characterized as speaking in a “loving” manner. Pope Francis has made a few remarks that the media have trumpeted as “softening” the Church’s stance on abortion and is hailed for his kindness and love – a “new Francis.” I think he is mischaracterized, but that what is being trumpeted is actually a “Euro-Francis.”

Orthodoxy runs afoul of the same modern project. Russia’s (particularly Putin) strong public affirmation of its traditional Orthodoxy is being criticized within Western media for being “reactionary,” and “dangerous.” It is certainly the case that a fair amount of nationalism and ethnic-centered sentiment can be found within the rhetoric of Putin’s supporters. But as Orthodoxy struggles to find its way within the current Euro-shaped world, it will doubtless encounter more criticism of a similar sort.

A recent criticism of Putin-style Orthodoxy came from within Orthodox circles (from an article by Fr. John Chryssavgis in the Huffington Post):

The full story about the spiritual and doctrinal foundation of the Orthodox Church includes a spirit of openness and receptivity. Authentic Orthodox spirituality is marked by tolerance of and dialogue with all people.

When Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew are together in Jerusalem on May 25, 2014, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of their predecessors’ historic meeting in the Holy City, their motivation and aspiration will be rooted in their awareness that “God is love.” That assurance comes much closer to the heart of Orthodox Christianity and to the heart of what matters about Orthodox spirituality than anything else. I hope that Mr. Buchanan, a Roman Catholic, will be watching with the rest of the world, including Swedish Minister Bildt, to see that the true face of Orthodoxy is not Vladimir Putin, but the face of humility and dialogue.

Of course, it would be hard to find a single contemporary elder of the Orthodox world who has spoken a kind word about dialog with the Pope. Equally absent are noted examples in history of Orthodox “tolerance” (in the Euro sense of the word).

There is something of a modern identity crisis within Orthodoxy and within every institution of the modern world. The crisis is brought about not by a loss of meaning within the heart of the faith, but within the cultural/political context of the modern world. How do Orthodox Christians live in a “globalized” world (by which I mean, the latest iteration of Europe’s own self-created identity).

Does it take up a confrontational stance, opposing almost everything the Eurostate touches? This is largely the position of St. Justin Popovich (and most of the contemporary elders who have commented on such things). Orthodoxy has endured centuries of dhimmitude under the Turkish Yoke. In that situation accommodation was a delicate art – both of sheer survival as well as true preservation.

The confrontational approach currently being championed within parts of Moscow has roots in other moments of history. Some of those are the failed hopes of 19th century Slavophiles and the dreams of a re-constitution of Byzantium. Many in the West are unaware that the Bolshevik revolution not only overthrew the Tsar but also dashed such deeply cherished hopes. It is easy to see both how such dreams can inspire many contemporary Orthodox as well as be abused by contemporary politicians.

Accommodation to globalism is not a strategy for long-term survival. For the global (read Euro) vision is indeed a culture of death. Death is, at best, a vanquished enemy, but can never be our ally.

Individual believers will struggle with these realities whether they want to or not. We live in the growing global culture and will have to direct our attention to it from time to time. Every virtue we espouse will need to be examined in the light of its true meaning. Language has been co-opted by the powers that be (it always is). The ascetic struggle will necessarily include both culture-critique as well as self-critique. And it will have to make peace with the fact that as believers we will be misunderstood. We are not of this world.

For myself, I welcome every voice that pulls back the curtain from those who currently seek to remake our world. For the world they would construct has longed been warned against by the fathers of the Church, dare I say, Christ Himself. God have mercy on us.