Same Old, Same Old
For reasons I won’t get into right now, I’ve largely refrained from commenting on the recently launched e-journal, The Red Egg Review. Written from an Anglophone Orthodox perspective (i.e., a perspective representing approximately 0.003 to 0.006% of the world’s Orthodox population), it claims to offer “a living faith, secure enough in its traditions to be constantly engaged in the world around it.” Further, according to RER, “[t]he Orthodox tradition, as we see it, is deep and rich, and by its nature resists our attempts to impose programs, whether aesthetical or ideological.” I could go on, but I think you get the point. The entire “manifesto” is available here. If you don’t want to read it, that’s fine; it’s all balderdash anyway. RER, like so many other Christian publications which claim to be open-textured and non-ideological, is unmistakably walled-in and ideological. It disclaims aligning Orthodoxy with “culture wars,” by which it means the pelvic politics of the Religious Right, but a brief perusal of the journal’s contents reveals it has no problem adopting the quaint liberalism of East Coast grad students hoping to take first prize in the Rob Bell Look-a-Like Contest. It’s unimaginative, uninspired, and throughly American.
Were I still Orthodox, I might be wondering today if there is any room left at all for what one might call an Orthodox political theology. Assuming that the political forms of Byzantium and “Holy Russia” shall never be resurrected, is there any way forward that doesn’t rely on shopworn liberal Christian aspirations such as witnessing for the truth while making sure to let everyone know that you tolerate, nay, respect and love everyone’s right to their own truth, too? There aren’t many models out there. Geographically speaking, Western Orthodoxy has only ever had one truly original and insightful critic of late modernity and secularism, and that was Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Schmemann, who couldn’t care less for “Holy Russia” or the “glorious Byzantine past,” saw through the bars of the gilded gates of secularism and the demonic temple of man which lied beyond. Sadly, nobody ever came forward to take up Schmemann’s insights and turn them into the thoroughgoing critique his all-too-short life never allowed him to produce.
The closest thing I ever found to a political theology that I would assume Anglophone Orthodoxy could get behind is the sort promoted by the Anglican theologians of “Radical Orthodoxy” (RO) Taking their bearings from Catholic Fr. Henri de Lubac’s contestable rejection of natura pura (“pure nature”) and the universalism contained in the works of Orthodox Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, RO’s politics is Grace-infused because, for RO, “all is Grace”; all life, all thought, all being is oriented toward God by virtue of its existence; it is a totalizing theology which comprehends all of creation, albeit in a disturbingly sectarian fashion. That this should be amicable to Orthodoxy can be seen in Orthodoxy’s own implicit rejection of pure nature; a fideistic approach to life where controlling narratives guide different peoples to exist under the banner of incompatible incommensurable worldviews becomes, in the final analysis, the only one available, at least if (Orthodox) Christianity is to not commit the high crime of toe-stepping by, say, being an active force against the perversions of late-modern “civilization.” (And no, I don’t mean the flaws in iOS 7.0 or the potential that stores will run short of their supply of iPhone 5c.)
Maybe this is too limited a look on things. After all, did not Orthodoxy — or at least the remnants of Orthodoxy that survived in Russia during the 20th C. — produce Alexandre Solzhenitsyn, a man whose ties to his native land did not blind him to the realities of the geographic West in which he spent years in exile. A declaration such as Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 “Harvard Address” is as unintelligible to the mentality of the RER as it is to the limp-wristed “sophistos” who still lurk about that once venerable institution. Granted, I tend not to think of Solzhenitsyn as an Orthodox thinker, perhaps because his most sustained reception in the West, after American political conservatives had exhausted their use for his stature, has been among conservative-to-traditional Catholics, particularly Distributists. Why Solzhenitsyn’s brand of Distributism, which didn’t necessarily rely on the blend of industrial disenchantment, Scholastic anthropology, and Catholic Social Teaching which gave rise to mainline Distributism, never grew roots among Western Orthodox is a bit of a mystery to me. I suppose, however, there is still hope that some day it might and, from there, provide a useful bridge between Orthodox and Catholics who find that the present-day realities facing themselves, their families, and their Church warrants something more than sipping cognac and fornicating.
If one wants to see how the Orthodox Church can and will engage the modern world, including secularism and democracy, I would advise people to pay closer attention to contemporary Eastern political and ecclesial realities, particularly as they unfold daily in countries such as Russia, Georgia, and Romania. It won’t be clean; these things never are, but given that the Orthodox Church continues to breathe in those parts of the world despite all of the hurdles late-modern realities bring to the table, it strikes me as imprudent to dismiss those developments in favor of imaginative forays into how to be Orthodox while staying on the invite lists to the right soirées and conferences.