Political Nestorianism and the Politics of Theosis

by Aristotle Papanikolaou

This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on “The Contribution of the Orthodox Church to the Realization of Justice, Freedom, Brotherhood, and Love among Peoples.”

In addressing how the Orthodox Churches in a pan-Orthodox voice and in pan-Orthodox action realize justice, freedom, brotherhood and love among peoples, what I would like to suggest is that the Orthodox churches will not contribute to such a realization until they abandon what I would call political Nestorianism.  As we all know, the sin of Nestorianism is the continuation of an Arian-like dualistic logic that could not conceive of the union between the fullness of divinity and the fullness of humanity. As a result, God and the world are stuck in a dualistic, over-and-againstness, which has implications for how Christians relate not simply to church, but to the public political space, which I define broadly to include civil society, culture, law, government, education and medicine. This political Nestorianism is on full display in the US, where there are Christians, including Orthodox, who cannot but see certain political issues as driven by a godless, politically liberal, humanistic agenda. Any capitulation on these issues would mean a defeat for Christianity and a surrender to the dark side. There can be no way of visualizing the legalization of gay marriage since that would mean admitting that godless liberalism is right and Christianity is wrong; social justice has become a bad word since it seems linked to the godless, anti-Christian liberal agenda; even the issue of gun control gets caught in this dualistic vision of the world as there are those Christians who think that the “right” to bear arms must be maintained if only not to capitulate to godless liberalism. What is ironic is that such Christians often invoke rights language, the very language of the so-called godless liberalism they are contesting.  Recently, Christians in the US have invoked the language of human rights to protect the religious freedom not to engage in actions that might violate their moral principles, such as the distribution of contraception and making cakes or flower arrangements for the celebratory receptions for gay marriages.

This political Nestorianism is especially evident in the post-communist Orthodox countries, particularly with the Russian Orthodox Church, who ironically has made alliances with evangelical Christians, whom they condemn as heretics and who very recently flooded Russia with the intent to convert Russia to Christianity. This political Nestorianism is the logic behind the Russian Orthodox Church’s recent statements on human rights, which are not entirely consistent, but ultimately diametrically oppose an understanding of human rights by the godless liberal West over-and-against a Russian Orthodox understanding, which allows for such things as vague laws against blasphemy and laws against so-called gay propaganda.  Especially worrisome is that the recent rhetoric from the ROC might impact the Pan-Orthodox Council’s statements on justice, freedom, brotherhood and love in such a way that the final statement will have no reference to human rights, or promote a so-called Orthodox understanding that ultimately undermines the very intent of human rights, which has to do primarily with freedom within the public political space. A further example of this political Nestorianism occurred recently when the Church of Greece condemned the practice of yoga as unchristian and commanded Orthodox Christians not to practice yoga. One even sees an example in the title under discussion, where if “brotherhood” were replaced with “fellowship,” we might be accused of giving into the feminist agenda; or in the recent translation of the creed in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese where “for us and our salvation” was replaced with “for us men and our salvation” so as to guarantee that Orthodoxy is not affected by feminism. What is, again, ironic, is that this political Nestorianism serves as ground for political monophysitism, where a certain space is demarcated as “Orthodox” in terms of culture and where there is an elision between the Church and the public political space such that the latter is absorbed into the former. Such political Nestorianism that is also political monophysitism is manifested in the ongoing problem of religion and nationalism in the traditional Orthodox countries.

What one does not see in the post-communist encounter with the public political space is an attempt to encounter that space that is not Church, the space where Orthodox Christians must relate to those who do not share their beliefs, on the basis of a theological principle with which all Orthodox would agree, and that is theosis—the declaration that all humans are created for divine-human communion. Theosis should be the basis for what I call the politics of Chalcedon. When asking how the Orthodox churches could contribute to the realization of justice, freedom, brotherhood and love, then we must ask ourselves, what does theosis demand of us when confronting the other who does not share my beliefs? What does it demand when thinking about laws that should govern the political space?  In my own theological judgment, a Chalcedonian politics would lead to an Orthodoxy that would encounter the public political space in such a way as to support a secularism-as-radical pluralism through the promotion of virtues that enable patterns of relationality that are theosis-like insofar as such virtue-based relationships actually do promote justice, freedom, fellowship and love; such a politics is generous insofar as it does not create diametrical oppositions but sees what is good and transformable in the Other; such a politics would welcome critique as an opportunity for dialogue; such a politics would condemn publicly all forms of violence against gay people, women and all minorities. Finally, the politics of theosis should lead the Orthodox churches to take stances on certain positions in the political space counterintuitive to what we are currently witnessing.

Aristotle Papanikolaou is Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.