Dear Mode of Life,
It is asserted in quite a number of quarters that the Eastern Orthodox Church, suffers from a culture of exclusivism, triumphalism and a general sense of its own superiority towards other religions. And that this attitude emanates directly from the Orthodox hierarchy, that is, the bishops. Could you offer some thoughts or reflections regarding such a matter?
A fellow brother in Christ, Peter
MODE OF LIFE RESPONDS:
Thank you for your letter, for it raises a point which is often cited by critics of the Church, or those who seek to radically change the Eastern Orthodox Church, without giving careful thought to what is the Church, what it believes, how it functions and how it conducts its ministry throughout the ages.
And on this point we must remember that the Church has a dynamic tension called Tradition, not in the sense of trying to freeze things into some static and nostalgic form from the past. Rather it is the dynamism between the unchangeable eternal truths known as “dogmas”, and how we bring those truths into practice, and apply them according to the needs of our own era. Tradition is, and must be, organic and adaptable, because it draws from the inspiration of its foundation and origin, remaining faithful to it, while attending to the needs of the present and future. More could be said on this, but with reference to your question, it plays a key role.
The proposition that the Eastern Orthodox Church suffers from a culture of exclusivism, triumphalism and a general sense of its own superiority, particularly towards other religions. And that this particular perspective emanates from the Orthodox Church’s leadership, namely the collegial hierarchy of bishops, is a sweeping generalization.
And as a sweeping generalization, it causes us to ask:
*(A.) In what sense is there a culture of exclusivism, triumphalism or superiority complexes? And;
*(B.) What do we mean by such terms and how are we defining them, or the context by which we judge what is exclusivist etc?
From the outset, my own thoughts is that differing religions, philosophies and ideologies, no matter how “free” always put forward certain principles or a way of life that people either accept and follow, or reject. (And I would also remind our readers, that the Orthodox Church, does not force people into belief, nor to choose to become baptized members. If anything, we would prefer not to have such people, who are not committed, or have been compelled to become Orthodox, as the results of such spiritual dispositions is not only detrimental for the individual personally, but more-so for the Church as a whole.) Yet to say that Orthodox Christianity is exclusive, is somewhat of a misnomer, because it is neither here or there, since to be Orthodox means something specific. Just as claiming something or someone is Jewish, Buddhist, Communist or Fascist, means and refers to something particular and unique. It is humanly impossible for all of us to be the exact same, as our specific circumstances influence our thoughts, freedom and actions.
This of course, refers to identity and expression, which in reality is exclusive by its very nature. Regarding Orthodox Christianity, it exists in the manner in which it does, by virtue of its particular beliefs and mission towards the world, its founding and development throughout the ages, its fidelity to its ethos, and the historical circumstances that it has been confronted with and responded to.
So we need to avoid taking too seriously, philosophical discourses about some non-existent and unachievable utopian ideal of where there is no “exclusiveness” as each person is a testimony to a unique identity and personhood that is the exclusive preserve of that particular individual.
In the case of the Orthodox Church, it is a Faith which has a particular order and a unique message and a way of life, that has stood the test of time. It has weathered many differing and divergent teachings/thoughts within it and from outside of it, as well as endured periods of persecution and oppression in many guises, that have challenged and threatened to subvert or dissolve the Gospel message.
By patiently standing firm in the face of these challenges, Orthodoxy sought to remain faithful to its origins, its ethos and its mission.
Consequently, Orthodoxy does not need to be triumphal, disparaging or dismissive of other religions or cultures, as its primary concern is what God seeks of the faithful and not the opinions of men. And this is emphasized by the Orthodox Christian worldview, as it sees the encounter with the other person, whether stranger or known, as an encounter with God, in Whose image all people are created in.
With such a perspective, it is not surprising that Orthodoxy views within others the existence and ability to possess various seeds of truth, as all truth is God’s, and attests to His presence. These seeds of truth are referred to by Orthodoxy as the “law of the heart” and a “protoevangelion” that prepares the way for the fullness and depth of truth. Orthodox Christianity is thus, not jealous of where the truth comes from, as it views the person who speaks and lives it in that one moment, as being far closer to God than a believer’s efforts towards vigilance in prayer and asceticism.
Nor does Orthodoxy in the depth of its theology and spiritual life make claims about salvation of one person’s soul over another person’s, as salvation is a mystery of the heart which only God knows.
Yet, what Orthodox Christianity does say and believe, is that the fullness of truth and salvation is to be found in Christ, Who is the bridge between our created reality and the One Divine Uncreated Trinitarian God. It believes and asserts that the most direct path in this journey of life and faith, is to be found in a life in Christ and in the Church which Christ established. A Church which Christ provided with spiritual guides and mentors, and imbued with graces like its various mystagogies (sacraments) so as to sustain the believer in their lifelong journey.
In saying this, Orthodoxy does not believe or assert that this “direct path” is an automatic guarantee or that it is without difficulty. On the contrary, it presents an austere struggle of personal, ascetical and spiritual dimensions with all its responsibilities; that encompass such things as to deny and humble oneself, to serve others as a work of prayer, love and self-sacrifice, to continually seek self-correction, or to recognise, reject and confess one’s own sins, failings and passions.
It is these things that preclude masses of people from entering into the Orthodox Way, as few freely wish to follow such an austere journey of faith and life. Such an austere ethos goes contrary and lacks attraction to the human predisposition for comfort, acceptance, non-vigilance and the gratification of personal desires or whims.
The “exclusivity” of Orthodoxy is not and cannot be based on any sense of superior being or triumphalism, for to fall into such sensibilities is to fail the Orthodox Way and the Gospel of Christ, in the most dismal manner. The Orthodox Way does not seek to merely cultivate or produce people who are simply good or are sound civic citizens. This must be the starting point for all peoples, whether believer or not.
Rather, the goal and aspiration is towards holiness and sanctity, so as to become “deified” or “godlike” beings who are the manifestation of divine love within the world and in turn, prospective citizens of Heaven who dwell close to God.
Therefore, any hierarch or teacher of the Orthodox Church who believes and espouses notions of triumphalism and superiority towards non-believers, fails in their duty of care to live and preach the Gospel of Christ. The only argument that could ever be offered in defence of such a stance, is in ensuring the spiritual well-being of the Orthodox faithful, in protecting them from influences that are negative or contrary to Orthodox phronema (-belief, ethos, mindset and behaviour).
And even then, it is not necessary to be disparaging of other religions or cultures, as to critique, question or even challenge what they are or have to offer is done through the loving wisdom, patience and forbearance of the Gospel of Christ. Given that the bishops and the teachers of the Church are encharged with an immense responsibility in preserving this unique journey of faith, it is only right and appropriate that they zealously guard against beliefs and teachings that deviate from the Orthodox Way. If anything they owe it to God and the world, that they preserve this unique path and life, because if they took a lax stance towards matters as cited by Nick, such as inter-communion, mixed marriages or sacramental fellowship, then what is it they stand for? What do they offer the masses if there is nothing unique or integral?
I would also hazard the point for the need to preserve Orthodox heritage and beliefs as an inheritance for all Christians, as the Orthodox Church has striven to the point of obsessive compulsiveness to remain faithful to the life and teachings of Christ and His Apostles. A point which is the foundation for all Christians, and the only means by which reconciliation and unity can be achieved amongst the plethora of Christian groups that exist today.
In any case Peter, I hope I have answered somewhat your question regarding this matter. My response to you, is taken from an article I am still writing in response to another topic, where we briefly cover the question you raised. And I suspect, that any further thoughts or questions you might raise regarding your point, will be dealt with in the yet unpublished article. But if you still have queries, please do not hesitate to raise them, as it affords the opportunity to clarify for yourself and others, the beliefs and practices of the Orthodox Church. And as always, I always encourage our readers to not only take my word for it, but to undertake their own research and to ask others who are knowledgeable and balanced in the Faith, not fanatics or so-called super-Orthodox, nor ignoramuses who are lax in the Faith.
In having said all that, I wish and pray for your continued health, that your thoughtful questions continue to be forthcoming, and that the Lord grant you wisdom in all your endeavours.
With the sincere humble love of Christ,
VM on behalf of Mode of Life Project