Orthodox Christian Rigorism: A Multifaceted Phenomenon

by Vasilios N. Makrides

In the historically Orthodox Christian heartlands of Eastern and South Eastern Europe, as well as sometimes in Orthodox diasporic communities around the globe, one may come across certain protest movements bearing many similarities to what is commonly called fundamentalism. In actual fact, this term has already been used to describe such phenomena, yet its main association with conservative Protestantism in early 20th century USA and its later generic and at times uncritical use render it rather inappropriate for the Orthodox case. The latter has a much longer historical background and exhibits various specific features, such as a rigorous traditionalism, a virulent anti-Westernism, and a strong anti-Ecumenism. It is, for example, in many respects problematic to call the Russian Old Believers (from the late 17th century onwards) fundamentalist. On the other hand, referring to related phenomena within Roman Catholicism, most scholars prefer to use another term, namely “integrism”. It appears thus necessary to look for a more neutral term for the quite multifaceted Orthodox case, this is why I opted for “rigorism”. This differentiation should not however obfuscate the various commonalities existing among all these protest phenomena.

The bearers of Orthodox rigorism do not represent a single and uniform unit, but can be located across a wide spectrum of people with varied provenance, social status and orientation.  These may act individually and independently in specific contexts, but in other cases they may be organized in respective movements, organizations and groups, thus enhancing their mobilization power, visibility and effectiveness. Rigorists usually entertain conflictual relations with the official church hierarchy and are basically distinguished from it. Rigorist attitudes also prevail within the Orthodox monastic world, which is also not free of tension with the church hierarchy. The main aim is not to abolish the church, but to render it more pure and militant and less compromising and conventional. Rigorists are usually driven by apocalyptic scenarios and have a strong conspiracy syndrome, spotting potential enemies of Orthodoxy everywhere. In some cases, they are ready to resort to violence in protecting the pristine Orthodox faith. They also defend puritanical and patriarchal values. Yet, selected church hierarchs may profess similar views or entertain close relations with rigorists and instrumentalize them for various purposes. This often blurs the boundaries between the two, although in general the church hierarchy professes more balanced, reasonable and diplomatic, albeit at times critical, opinions. In general, the church hierarchy tries to keep the rigorists under control, yet the differences between them may also lead to open conflict and subsequent schism, as was the case with the Old Calendarists in 20th century Greece. Generally speaking, we should not confuse the rigorist positions of certain church hierarchs with the overall traditionalist stance of the church hierarchy. In fact, the church usually looks for a “third way” between rigorist and liberal positions and tries to mediate between the different camps. Nevertheless, its general stance is admittedly more conservative, which brings it closer to the rigorists and explains their usual correlations and constant interferences. This attitude characterized the period of Archbishop Christodoulos of Greece (1998-2008), and the same holds true for the attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church in post-communist times and its defense of the so-called “traditional values.”

Examining the background and the development of Orthodox rigorism, it is vital to distinguish between the endogenous and the exogenous causes of this phenomenon. The endogenous ones refer more to cardinal and interrelated factors germane to the overall articulation and development of Orthodox Christianity across time. Here we may count the catalytic significance of the historical East-West opposition and conflict, which led later on to the wholesale demonization of the West in the Orthodox eyes; in addition, the particular literal understanding of “Orthodoxy” (the sole right faith and doctrine) as an element of electedness, superiority, triumphalism and self-complacency in our milieu and its numerous socio-cultural repercussions across history. It is not accidental that rigorists are deeply affected by “Hyper-Orthodoxy”, namely when they accuse each other of betrayal and deviation from the right Orthodox path, a process usually leading to various internal splits. On the other hand, the exogenous causes of rigorism relate more to specific influences and challenges to the Orthodox world coming from outside (mostly from Western Europe from the early modern times onwards), which triggered various responses and reactions including rigorist ones (e.g., in Russia following the Westernizing reforms of Tsar Peter I or in independent Greece under the Bavarian regime of King Otto). Rigorist reactions were intensified even further from the second half of the 20th century until today due to the ongoing transnational process of globalization, which entails a series of economic, political and cultural transformations including the feared erosion of local religious and national identities. The “new world order” is usually interpreted by the rigorists according to their own conspiracy logic.

Rigorists are found today not only in the historically and predominantly Orthodox cultures, but also in Orthodox communities across the globe including the West. Rigorist positions (e.g., anti-Ecumenical) were endorsed, for example, by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) in the West after its separation from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1927. Various groups of Old Calendarists also operate in various Western settings including the USA criticizing the growing modernism of the church. Interestingly enough, rigorist views are sometimes endorsed by Western converts to Orthodox Christianity, who are fascinated by its claims for absolute, exclusive and unique religious truth. Despite its occasional visibility and vigor though, rigorism does not represent the Orthodox mainstream and is rather a marginal phenomenon (also quantitatively). In fact, there are many Orthodox actors, seminal thinkers and initiatives criticizing and opposing rigorism. Yet, the often ambivalent attitude of the church hierarchy towards rigorists indirectly enhances the significance of this phenomenon. In addition, the lack of a productive encounter between Orthodox Christianity and modernity as a whole (e.g., the Enlightenment) creates a religious and cultural environment that cherishes the past and its authorities (e.g., the Church Fathers) in a credulous, uncritical way and remains reluctant to pragmatically address modern challenges. In such a context, rigorists may not only survive, but sometimes thrive. They tend to be fully satisfied with their “holy ignorance”, although their understanding of the Orthodox tradition is in fact reductionist, fragmented and lacks the sophistication and the critical awareness induced by sound historical analysis, modern contextual thinking and the ability for self-reflection.

Vasilios N. Makrides is Professor of Religious Studies (specializing in Orthodox Christianity) at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Erfurt, Germany.